The House Judiciary Committee OK’d a bill Tuesday that would ensure church doors are among the last to close during a declared state of emergency.
Under the bill (HB 215), state and local governments can no longer deem a box store as more essential than a church. So long as any business is permitted to operate, the bill asserts, so shall religious services.
Republican Rep. Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach is the bill sponsor. The committee OK’d the measure despite some concern among Democratic lawmakers. The bill will now head to the House floor.
“I’m a Floridian and I’m an American who wants to make sure that my First Amendment right is protected,” DiCeglie told lawmakers.
The bill, DiCeglie explained, is a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s subsequent response.
Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida was among several states that deemed houses of worship essential during the early months of the pandemic, meaning the state allowed church leaders to conduct business as usual.
States like California, New York and even Texas, however, took a different path. They shuttered houses of worship, while other businesses remained operational.
Tampa Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskell described the bill as “well-intentioned,” but suggested it may threaten the health and safety of Floridians in a future emergency. She voted against the measure despite describing faith as “important” to her.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that you never know what’s coming around the corner,” Driskell said. “So it makes me uncomfortable to tie the hands of future governments, as we might need to see what else is coming down the pike, even with COVID-19.”
Florida, though, was not without controversy. Police arrested a Hillsborough County pastor in April 2020 after hosting an in-person service with hundreds of parishioners.
Authorities deemed the service in violation of a local ordinance, which prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people DeSantis later lifted all local emergency orders.
“Our pastors have to do better too,” said Democratic Rep. Andrew Learned of Tampa, who voted in favor of the bill. “Flaunting public health in the middle of a pandemic just so you can get a news headline to increase your congregation — which is exactly what happened — is wrong.”
Some Republicans, meanwhile, wished the bill went further. Like DeSantis, some Republicans including Rep. Spencer Roach of North Fort Myers, argued government has no business to determine what is and is not “essential.”
“I think we really need a sweeping review of executive power to ensure that in the future, no Governor, no cabinet officer, no Mayor, no county or city manager or no county Sheriff has the power to determine what businesses or institutions — religious or otherwise — are essential or nonessential,” Roach said.
Alternatively, American Atheists’ Florida Assistant State Director Devon Graham testified against the bill.
She asserted the bill not only threatens the safety of Floridians, but it is also woefully vague. The bill, she contended, stops short of defining which businesses are relevant in regard to the proposal.
“If they are open to do the jobs that are necessary during a disaster, then churches can be open without any restrictions,” Graham said of hospitals, ambulance services and police.
She also lamented that the bill does not adequately define religious services.
“Is it just your typical Sunday morning service or is a 5,000-person tent revival?” Graham asked.
DiCeglie’s proposal now awaits the House’s full consideration. Lake Mary Republican Sen. Jason Brodeur is the Senate companion sponsor (SB 254).
If the bill becomes law, it would take effect July 1.
Jason Delgado covers news out of the Florida State Capitol. After a go with the U.S. Army, the Orlando-native attended the University of Central Florida and earned a degree in American Policy and National Security. His past bylines include WMFE-NPR and POLITICO Florida. He’d love to hear from you. You can reach Jason by email (email@example.com) or on Twitter at @byJasonDelgado.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here