Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) is expected to sign a bill passed by the state’s legislature that declares all religious services “essential.”
Senate Bill 254 was sent to DeSantis on Friday, with signing expected by June 30, according to the governor’s office. The bill was approved in the state’s Senate in January.
“An emergency order authorized by this part may not directly or indirectly prohibit religious services or activities,” the bill’s text reads.
“However, a general provision in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction may be applied to a religious institution if the provision is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” it added.
The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jason Brodeur (R), said in January that the legislation would prevent future closures of houses of worship under a state of emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
“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.”
The controversy regarding religious services deemed as “essential” arose during the pandemic when some states forced churches to stop holding worship services. DeSantis signed an executive order in April 2020 to allow religious services to continue.
According to Florida Politics, the order followed the arrest of a Brandon, Florida, pastor after he held services in violation of a Hillsborough County public ordinance.
“Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister and State Attorney Andrew Warren issued a warrant for Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne’s arrest earlier this week after he hosted a Sunday morning worship service with 300-500 partitioners despite ‘educational’ outreach from the Sheriff’s office urging him not to and cautioning that such a gathering would violate the county’s safer at home order,” the outlet reported.
DeSantis also clarified his support of religious institutions after signing the executive order.
“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church,” DeSantis said, according to WUFT. “I’m certainly not going to do that.”
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) signed a similar bill in April, declaring all religious services essential in times of state emergencies.
The battle over church closures during the pandemic was a major controversy nationwide. In California, a February 2021 Supreme Court ruling lifted the ban on indoor church services put in place by Governor Gavin Newsom (D).
“Since the arrival of COVID–19, California has openly imposed more stringent regulations on religious institutions than on many businesses.” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in an opinion. “California worries that worship brings people together for too much time. Yet, California does not limit its citizens to running in and out of other establishments; no one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals.”