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After churches forced to shutter in pandemic, South Carolina enacts bill deeming them 'essential'

Measure signed into law by GOP Gov. Henry McMaster

Published: April 26, 2022 1:10pm

Updated: April 26, 2022 4:44pm

South Carolina GOP Gov. Henry McMaster has signed a bill into law that will protect churches from discrimination during emergencies.

The law will allow churches and other houses of worship and religious organization to remain open during a state of emergency, such as a pandemic. It deems religious services "an essential service" that "must be allowed to continue operations."

As businesses such as barber shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues were shut down in the spring of 2020 due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, McMaster said that closing churches would be a violation of the freedom of religion provision of the U.S. Constitution. 

The bill reads the state "may not limit the ability of a religious organization to continue operating and to engage in religious services during a state of emergency to a greater extent than it limits operations or services of other organizations or businesses that provide essential services."

South Carolina may, however, require religious organizations to "comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements during a state of emergency" that are also being applied to "all organizations or businesses providing essential services" and do not "do not impose a substantial burden on religious services."

Greg Chaufuen, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, says that the bill "takes the modest step of ensuring that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations in violation of the Constitution. We commend Gov. McMaster and the South Carolina Legislature for taking action to defend religious freedom in South Carolina."

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