Florida Senate passes bill declaring religious services ‘essential,’ limiting future bans on worship

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by Ashley Sadler, LifeSite News:

Under the measure, houses of worship would be considered ‘essential services’ and no emergency order may ‘directly or indirectly’ cancel public worship if any businesses remain open.

Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that would prohibit future “emergency orders” like those enacted during the COVID-19 response from closing down religious institutions if any businesses are allowed to stay open.

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Florida’s Republican-led Senate approved the measure (SB 254) in a 31-3 vote Thursday. A companion bill filed in the House, HB 215, was advanced Wednesday and awaits a floor vote.

Under the new measure, houses of worship would be considered “essential services” and no emergency order may “directly or indirectly” cancel public religious services so long as any businesses remain open.

The move comes after religious groups along with conservative politicians and commentators raised the alarm over the past two years when churches and synagogues were told to close their doors while other businesses, sometimes including liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, were allowed to remain open.

“It is born out of the pandemic, but not,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur, noting that the legislation is not merely a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19 and the restrictions imposed ostensibly to slow its spread.

“It applies to all emergency orders that would come in. It would basically say if Publix is open, so is your place of worship,” Brodeur said. “What it doesn’t seek to do is what we’ve seen in some of the other states, where churches, synagogues and mosques were singled out for congregated activities.”

If passed by the House and signed into law, SB 254 would make permanent a declaration made by Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in April 2020, when he issued an executive order specifically describing churches as essential services and exempting them from stay-at-home orders during the early days of the pandemic.

Florida Politics noted that Florida was among a dozen states to do so in 2020, while states like “California, New York and even Texas took a different path, shuttering religious institutions along with other businesses.”

Some churches and religious groups in states which had deemed them non-essential have argued that their rights were violated when public religious services were shut down while big box stores and other indoor spaces were permitted to remain open.

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