Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb Signs Legislation Deeming Churches Essential
Gov. Eric Holcomb
Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republican Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb signed a law last week protecting the state’s churches by designating them as essential and forbidding state authorities from treating them differently than secular establishments during public health emergencies.

Sponsored by Republican state Sens. Eric Koch, Liz Brown, and Aaron Freeman, the Senate Enrolled Act 263 (SB 263) says in part that “religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency.”

“[T]he state and a political subdivision may not impose restrictions on … the operation of a religious organization; or … religious services that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on other businesses and organizations that provide essential services to the public,” the bill further reads.

SB 263 goes on to clarify that it “does not prohibit the state or a political subdivision from requiring a religious organization to comply with a generally applicable health, safety, or occupancy requirement that is neutral towards religious organizations and equally applicable to any organization or business that provides essential services.”

“However, the state or political subdivision may not enforce any health, safety, or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service unless the state or political subdivision demonstrates that applying the burden to the religious service in this particular instance is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” it added.

SB 263 passed the state House of Representatives by a vote of 74–20 and the state Senate with a vote of 36–10.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Legal Counsel Greg Chafuen praised the new law in Friday statement:

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. We commend Gov. Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature for making it clear that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Indiana, on the other hand, did not offer support for the bill. “The right to exercise one’s faith, including the freedom to hold and attend worship services, is among our most fundamental rights,” the organization said in January. “But religious freedom does not entitle religious institutions to receive special exemptions from the law if it would pose a grave risk to the health and lives of individuals and the public health. SB 263, however, would authorize just that.”

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