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Florida House backs keeping churches open during emergencies

Carl Juste

TALLAHASSEE — Both chambers of the Republican-dominated Legislature are now moving forward with a proposal aimed at avoiding repeats of high-profile disputes that occurred when some churches were shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee, in a 14-3 vote Wednesday, approved a bill (HB 215) that would keep churches and other religious institutions from being shut down because of government-imposed emergency orders.

House sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said the proposal is about “protecting our freedom to practice religion in the state of Florida,” adding that the U.S. Supreme Court rejected California’s COVID-19 restrictions on religious exercises.

“During the pandemic, local emergency orders kept stores like Lowe's — this is not a knock on Lowe's, I’m a frequent shopper to Lowe's — Lowe's was able to remain open,” DiCeglie said. “However, the local emergency order said that a local church was not allowed to have 10 people congregate, which in my opinion is a violation of freedom of religion, which is protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution."

Devon Graham, Florida assistant state director for American Atheists, countered that people have twisted the public-health issue into religious persecution.

“Under normal circumstances, there should be little, if any, restrictions on our religious freedoms,” Graham said. “But we've lost over 62,000 Floridians to this pandemic. For the sake of our communities. I think we can and should expect some changes in how we live our lives. I've heard the argument that if we can walk around Publix, we can sit in the pews. There may be an argument there. But regardless of whom you worship, you still need food to survive.”

The bill stems from how religious institutions were handled by state and local governments in the early stages of the pandemic.

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, as the pandemic began to hit the state. Among the more than 50 supplemental coronavirus-related executive orders that DeSantis issued, one provided that certain essential businesses and establishments could operate at reduced capacities, including churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.

The exemption came shortly after the pastor of a Tampa megachurch was arrested for holding two in-person church services in violation of a Hillsborough County ordinance prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The charges were eventually dropped.

A similar bill (SB 254) is ready to go before the full Senate after moving swiftly through committees.

The House measure would allow religious institutions to offer in-person services if other businesses deemed essential are allowed to operate.

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