Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed into law a measure that “recognizes that churches are essential” and “helps protect churches and other religious organizations from being targeted, penalized, or discriminated against during a time of emergency,” reports Jerry Cox, President of the Family Council.

Cox said that Act 94 of 2021, “An Act to Require that Religious Organizations Are Protected During an Emergency,” was signed on February 10. He stated, “Act 94 will help protect churches and religious groups from discrimination without hampering the government’s ability to respond to an emergency.” Family Council is a Focus on the Family-affiliated organization working on behalf of life, marriage, family and religious freedom in Arkansas.

The bill passed the Arkansas General Assembly by a vote of 75 to 10 in the Arkansas House and 31 to 0 in the Senate. Republicans have a “trifecta” in the state, controlling the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Governor’s office.

The Act begins by saying, “Religion provides extensive benefits to the country by meeting the spiritual needs of the populace and by supporting vital social needs.” It goes on to state that faith-based charities and institutions “build communities and families.”

In addition to those important roles, the Act notes the economic value of goods and services provided by churches and religious organizations, “Religion contributes one trillion two hundred billion dollars ($1,200,000,000,000) annually to the nation’s economy and society, including without limitation charitable activities, health care, educational services, volunteer activities to assist the poor and individuals struggling with addiction or mental illness, and job training programs.” The dollar amount comes from a study by Brian Grim and Melissa Grim in 2016, “The Socio-economic Contribution of Religion to American Society: An Empirical Analysis.”

The legislation points, as well, to the importance of our First Amendment freedoms, quoting a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Andrew Cuomo. That decision gave injunctive relief to religious groups from 10- and 25-person capacity limits for houses of worship, imposed by the New York governor.

Here’s the full quote from that case, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, “The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all ‘essential’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”

Greg Chafuen, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Legislative Advocacy, applauded the law. In a news release, he said, “While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating houses of worship and religious organizations worse than comparable secular activities.

“Arkansas has taken an important step to defend this right by enabling religious organizations to keep their doors open and protecting them from discrimination based on their religious identity or conduct. We commend Rep. Bentley and the Arkansas Legislature for ensuring that churches and their ministries remain free to serve those who are in need, at risk, or suffering during this pandemic.”

Related articles and resources:

Appeals Court Tosses Governor Cuomo’s Church Restrictions, Rules They ‘Discriminate Against Religion’

Religious Freedom on the Docket as SCOTUS and 6th Circuit Issue COVID-Related Rulings Affecting Four States

Religious Freedom Wins for Churches in California over COVID Restrictions

Supreme Court Ends California’s Worship Ban, Orders State to Permit Houses of Worship 25% Capacity

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