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Florida bill would designate religious services as 'essential' during an emergency

The legislation requires that emergency shutdown orders must apply equally across businesses and religious institutions.

Updated: October 2, 2021 - 10:35pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

If a grocery store is an "essential" exempt from stay-at-home orders during an emergency, then religious services also warrant that designation, say sponsors of a pre-filed 2022 Florida bill.

State Sen. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) filed Senate Bill 254 on Sept. 17. It stipulates that "emergency orders may not expressly prohibit religious institutions from regular religious services or activities."

On Thursday, state Rep. Nick DiCeglie (R-Indian Rocks Beach) filed a House companion, House Bill 215, which reiterates that an emergency lockdown or shutdown order must apply equally across businesses and religious institutions.

The proposed one-page bill states: "An emergency order ... may not expressly prohibit a religious institution from conducting regular religious services or activities. However, a general provision in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction may be applied to a religious institution if the provision is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."

Brodeur and DiCeglie say adoption of SB 254/HB 215 would avert confusion that led to confrontations between local governments and several churches in March and April 2020 over public health orders that restricted gatherings for religious services the same way as for government, entertainment and other assemblies.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on April 1, 2020, issued a statewide stay-at-home order during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic that initially appeared to allow local governments to adopt tighter restrictions than what the state was imposing.

Hillsborough County Commissioners then adopted a stay-at-home order that restricted gatherings anywhere, including religious institutions, to no more than 10 people.

On April 6, Brandon megachurch preacher Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested by Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies after up to 500 worshippers attended Palm Sunday services in violation of the county's order at his The River at Tampa Bay Church.

Claiming the restriction violated his First Amendment rights, Howard-Browne — and leaders of several other congregations — threatened to host massive Easter Sunday services, essentially daring local officials to enforce their order.

DeSantis, however, amended his April 1 order to exempt churches from local emergency ordinances, stating he would not allow "government coercion" to close any house of worship any day.

"There is no reason why you can't do a church service 6 feet apart," he said. "In times like this, I think the service that they are performing is going to be very important to people, particularly coming up in the Easter season."

The governor questioned the legality of such orders. The California and New York supreme courts both deemed emergency restrictions on religious assembly violated the First Amendment.

"I don't know that they would have the authority, quite frankly," DeSantis said. "The Constitution doesn't get suspended here. There's got to be ways where you can accommodate."

Religious leaders' "work is important" and should be classified as "essential," he added — which is exactly what Brodeur's and DiCeglie's bill would do.

"I think it's appropriate public policy that we make sure we're never in that situation here in the state of Florida," DiCeglie told Florida Politics. "If we're going to close down and restrict religious institutions from being open, then we have to apply that same restriction to everybody."

He said with rights come responsibility and the vast majority of religious institutions of all faiths in Florida voluntarily complied with suggested guidelines and offered services online or outdoors. Some still are.

"They're the ones that made that decision on their own," he said. "Government didn't come in and essentially shut them down, and I think that that's a huge difference."

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