The State of Indiana enacted a legislation that prohibits the restriction of attending religious services in the event of disaster emergencies.
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed Indiana Senate Bill 263 on Thursday, after it was passed in the state House on April 6, 74-20, and state Senate on April 8, 36-10, Christian Headlines reported.
Titled "Religious activities as essential services," the bill was authored by Republican state Senators Eric Koch, Liz Brown and Aaron Freeman. The sponsors include GOP state Representatives Gregory Steuerwald, Matt Lehman and Robert Cherry.
The legislation "prohibits the state and a political subdivision from imposing restrictions on a religious organization that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed upon other businesses and organizations that provide essential services to the public."
Further, it allows the state to require a religious organization of compliance with "with a neutral and generally applicable health, safety, or occupancy requirement to the same extent as other organizations," only if the requirement is allowable under the state's law on religious freedom.
After the bill was passed in Indiana House, Rep. Steuerwald, reiterated that church services are "essential," adding that the rule will also be applied to Sunday school classes, weddings in churches and funerals.
The proposal was resisted by other lawmakers.
Democrat Rep. Ed DeLaney claimed that it defies protecting people "no matter what the condition is."
Republican Rep. John Jacob also said that it is unnecessary since the law, relative to freedom of religion, is already "embodied in the Constitution."
But Steuerwald argued that the bill only entails government restrictions on religious services. Churches can still form their own restrictions, "not limited on any way."
Before Holcomb signed it into law, Sen. Koch stated that the bill aims to protect religious freedom, Indianapolis Star wrote.
"This will protect that very carefully enshrined right in our Constitution. And as to the large gatherings, I trust and I know that no religious leader would put the members of his church at risk in an irresponsible sort of way," Koch said.
But Sen. Tim Lanane, a Democrat, opposed the legislation, saying that the state should be given the right to implement control during an emergency that could "threaten mass death within a society." He then called for its reconsideration for "proper balance" of rights in exercising religion, contending that the state has "compelling reasons" in limiting the right to worship for a period of time to prevent harming others.
It's worth noting, however, that according to a new MIT study, social distancing rules and capacity limits, such as those often enacted against churches, were found to be unnecessary and "just not reasonable" at all.
Greg Chafuen, legal counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, gladly welcomed Senate Bill 263's enactment.
"Houses of worship and religious organizations provide soul-sustaining operations that are essential to our society and protected by the First Amendment. While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment 'cannot be put away and forgotten' even in a pandemic. This means that the government can't treat churches worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms without violating the Constitution," Chafuen said.
The new law will take effect on July 1.