On Wednesday, representatives in the Oklahoma House voted 80 to 18 a bill titled "Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act," which bans the government from forcing churches and other houses of worship to close, even during a pandemic. House Bill 2648 will now make its way to the Senate.
According to the Christian Post, the new bill states that "no governmental entity shall substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability."
House Bill 2648, which the Oklahoma House passed with a landslide vote, orders that not a single governmental entity can "substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and the the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."
In addition, the "Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act" requires that any order issued by a government body due to an emergency that requires the closure of any church or place of worship "entitled to the religious exemption found in Section 501(c)(3) of Title 26 of the United States Code shall be considered a substantial burden even if the order or rule is one of general applicability."
Public Radio Tulsa reported that a number of Republican lawmakers criticized Governor Kevin Stitt's decision to ban gatherings of more than 10 people back in March 2020. His emergency order shut down churches and places of worship, but allowed businesses such as liquor stores to remain open. Republican lawmakers in the Oklahoma House insisted that "people should choose faith above all, even during a pandemic."
Republican Representative Brian Hill told KOCO 5 News that the bill protecting churches from government mandated closures even during pandemics "further protects our God-given right to worship."
He argued that migrants came to North America "seeking religious freedom and to escape a tyrannical government" and that "our country's founders had the wisdom to specifically outline the freedom to worship in one of our founding documents."
Republican Representative Jon Echols echoed the same sentiments, saying that the country was "founded by individuals seeking freedom to worship in the manner they so choose without persecution." Rep. Echols believes that the "Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act" that was passed by the Oklahoma House is a "patriotic" move to protect the future generation's rights to worship.
Arkansas also passed a similar bill last month, earlier reports said. House Bill 1211, passed into law by both the House and Senate, limits a governor's power to close places of worship even in the midst of of a pandemic.
The bill, entitled "An Act To Require That Religious Organizations Are Protected During An Emergency; To Declare An Emergency; And For Other Purposes," is meant to protect Arkansans' religious liberties and was lauded by the state's governor, Asa Hutchinson.
"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," Hutchinson told House Speaker Matthew Shepherd in a letter.
Oklahoma now has 429,000 COVID-19 infections, but is already ramping up the vaccination process. According to The Oklahoman, this week will mark Phase 2 in the local government's distribution plan, in which 40,000 more residents will become eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.
Oklahoma's deputy commissioner of health Keith Reed said that the expansion of eligibility is due to the availability of three vaccines and the steady increase of the overall vaccine supply. Reed said that they are "well ahead" of their goal to inoculate teachers and school staff members by spring break.