Final voting on a bill addressing government control over worship services during public emergencies, already heavily altered, will be delayed by one week for further potential changes. The bill’s sponsor, State Representative Rusty Grills (R-Newbern), indicated Monday that he would review the bill further to consider the concerns of Democratic State Representatives London Lamar (D-Memphis) and Harold Love, Jr. (D-Nashville). Lamar and Love raised concerns that governments couldn’t do enough to curb church activity during pandemics under the bill; Lamar argued that religious institutions would be fine if they were ordered to meet virtually.
The adopted amendment has already altered the bill entirely. The original provisions prohibited closures and limitations of churches or religious organizations, including their religious services or activities. In the amended version, the bill would only prohibit state and local governments and agencies from closing churches or religious organizations. It wouldn’t protect houses of worship from any governmental restrictions or limitations.
“The county health officer shall not issue an order […] that closes or limits the lawful operations of a church or religious organization, including religious services or activities,” read the original bill. “During a state of emergency, major disaster, or natural disaster, the state, a political subdivision, or a public official shall not prohibit, or impose additional restrictions on, the lawful operations of a church or religious organization, including religious services or activities.” (emphasis added)
The bill also wouldn’t prevent local municipalities from closing down houses of worship. It would only apply to the governor’s emergency powers.
It is unclear if the deletion of the language prohibiting any limitations or restrictions on religious organizations would enable the government to impose such severe limitations and restrictions that it would render that organization’s worship essentially defunct. It is also unclear if the deletion of the provision protecting religious services or activities would apply to communing with fellow believers outside of deity worship, such as those gathering practices observed by Christians.
The bill will appear before the House for its final vote, again, next Monday.
– – –