In reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown policies that closed churches but kept liquor stores and other “essential” businesses open, the Virginia legislature has passed House Bill 2171 (HB 2171) restricting the emergency powers of the governor or other governmental agencies vis-à-vis houses of worship.
The bill, which amends an existing Virginia statute outlining the authority of the governor and other emergency agencies, simply adds the following limitation:
No rule, regulation, or order issued by the Governor or other governmental entity pursuant to this chapter shall impose restrictions on the operation of a place of worship that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on any other business, organization, or activity.
The final language was a bipartisan compromise that ensured the bill’s passage. As originally introduced, the bill exempted houses of worship entirely from any emergency orders issued by the governor or other agency.
The final version passed by a vote of 35-5 in the Senate, and 53-43 in the House. Governor Youngkin is expected to sign the legislation.
Members of both parties praised the bill.
Delegate Wren Williams, the bill’s Republican sponsor, told Virginia Mercury the narrower version approved by legislators would put houses of worship at the “least restrictive level” of any shutdown orders.
Sen. Chap Peterson, a Democrat, said, “At a minimum, we can certainly say they’re essential to a community,” referring to houses of worship.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, many state health authorities and governors used their statutory emergency powers to restrict or limit public gatherings in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Churches in various states pushed back, suing their state governments over what they considered to be infringements of their First Amendment rights.
And the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed, beginning in November 2020 in a case out of New York that treated churches more restrictively than places of business.
“It is time—past time—to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues, and mosques,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in his concurring opinion in that case.
Other cases from California churches soon followed, and eventually the restrictions on churches in The Golden State were eased as the lawsuits were settled in favor of the houses of worship or local governments rescinded their public emergency orders.
But curtailing of the rights of churches to meet did not sit well with the public and several state legislatures, who passed what have been termed “Worship is Essential” acts to protect churches in future public emergency situations. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, amended their emergency powers statutes to limit their governor’s authority during such emergencies.
Kudos to the Virginia legislature for recognizing the importance of religious freedom, even during public emergencies. As Assistant U.S. Attorney General Eric Dreiband told California Governor Newsom in a May 19, 2020, letter on behalf of the rights of California churches, “Simply put, there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
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