August 12, 2021 4:33pm
Updated: August 12, 2021 11:38pm
Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship in New Hampshire were shut down during the pandemic, as the state limited public gatherings to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But a new law signed by Gov. Chris Sununu on Wednesday will prevent the state or local governments from shutting them down during future public health emergencies.
The measure was approved by the state Legislature largely along party lines, with Republicans supporting the legislation and Democrats mostly opposing it.
During the pandemic, Sununu’s emergency stay-at-home order prohibited churches from holding in-person services. Many houses of worship held online services.
Supporters of the new law, which they called the "Religious Liberties Act", argue that the state was wrong to declare houses of worship "nonessential services" during the pandemic, while allowing hardware, grocery and liquor stores to remain open.
"If Home Depot was considered to be an essential service, I think a church, and someone's ability to go to worship, should also be an essential service," Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said during a recent hearing on the legislation.
Opponents said they were concerned that the changes would hinder the state's ability to protect the public during a public health emergency, such as a pandemic. They pointed out that churches and other houses of worship were labeled in some states as "superspreaders" during the pandemic.
The new law takes effect in 60 days.