In Tennessee, houses of worship may never have to worry about blanket policies shutting them down during a state of emergency. Specifically, a proposed bill would limit state, political subdivisions, or public officials from imposing restrictions or outright prohibiting churches or religious organizations from operating.
The bill would also limit the authority of county health officers to mandate quarantines. It wouldn’t extend its protections to those places of worship where an outbreak has occurred.
An adopted amendment to the bill clarified that these protections wouldn’t extend to activities outside of worship, such as church-sponsored basketball games or potlucks. During the hearing with the Civil Justice Committee the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Rusty Grills (R-Newbern), explained that this amendment was necessary after Governor Bill Lee’s office cited concern that the legislation could be construed to encompass non-religious activities.
During that same hearing, the Tennessee Independent Baptists for Religious Liberty Executive Director Aaron Snodderly expressed gratitude that Lee hadn’t shut down churches, but made it clear that future governors may not be so respectful of religious freedoms. Snodderly cited examples of shutdowns that occurred in California and New York.
“We ask you to go a step further and guarantee that in the future, if something ever arises again, a governor could not make the same mistake that those governors in other states have made around the country this past year. We ask you to go a step further to protect the rights of churches to meet and worship their God according to the dictates of their own conscience,” stated Snodderly.
During committee hearings, only a few Democratic representatives voted against the bill: State Representatives John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) and Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis).
Another bill introduced by Grills concerning COVID-19 vaccine exemptions for students, with an amendment to allow religious exemptions to all vaccinations, was approved in subcommittee on Tuesday.
The Calendar & Rules Committee approved the bill concerning the shutdown of worship services without objection on Thursday. The House will vote on it on Monday.
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