A new law in Arkansas that gives churches protection from government closure took effect Friday according to reports.
Christian Headlines announced that a House Bill 1211 was passed into law by the Arkansas House and Senate that limits a governor's power to close places of worship in protection of religious liberty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Great care has been taken by the executive branch to avoid infringing on these sacred rights. Churches and religious institutions are specifically excluded from any directives that could be interpreted as applicable to them," said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson in a letter to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd as per the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Hutchinson stated, as per Christian Headlines, that he would allow the bill to approved into law excluding his signature and defended his actions the past year during the pandemic as not contrary to religious liberty.
The new law is entitled "An Act To Require That Religious Organizations Are Protected During An Emergency; To Declare An Emergency; And For Other Purposes" with a subtitle, "To Require That Religious Organizations Are Protected During An Emergency; To Declare An Emergency."
It was sponsored by House Representatives Mary Bentley, Sonia Barker, Karilyn Brown, Brian Evans, Tony Furman, Jimmy Gazaway, Robin Lundstrum, Rick McClure, Jon Milligan, Aaron Pilkington, David Ray, Johnny Rye, Brandt Smith, and Kendon Underwood; and by Senators Kim Hammer, Charles Beckham, Trent Garner, Ben Gilmore, Bart Hester, French Hill, Missy Irvin, Mark Johnson, and Dan Sullivan.
Running 10 pages, the law identified the importance of religion and its practice to society, government, and economy on top of its benefits to the individual person. It cited laws that emphasize the necessity of religious liberty before it delved into the details of the extent of the said law.
"It is found and determined by the 12 General Assembly of the State of Arkansas that the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and response of the executive branch to the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic have highlighted the need to address the constitutional rights of the citizens of Arkansas, particularly the right to the free exercise of religion; that this act prohibits government interference with the free exercise of religion during a disaster emergency such as the current pandemic; and that this act is immediately necessary to ensure the protection 19 of the constitutional rights of Arkansans to freely exercise religion," the law stated.
"Therefore, an emergency is declared to exist, and this act being immediately necessary for the preservation of the public peace, health, and safety," it added.
According to Christian Headlines, the new law directs the governor to "not enforce a health, safety, or occupancy requirement" which "imposes a substantial burden on a religious organization." It gives the governor the leeway to demonstrates "that applying the requirement to the religious organization is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest."
"The board shall not prohibit or limit a religious organization from continuing to operate or engage in religious services during a disaster emergency under the Arkansas Emergency Services Act of 1973," the law stressed.
In an interview with Christian Headlines, Family Council President Jerry Cox elaborated that the new law will "help protect churches and religious groups from discrimination without hampering the government's ability to respond to an emergency."