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Arkansas moves to protect worship during emergencies

Religious Liberty | Legislators take long-term lessons from pandemic lockdowns
by Steve West
Posted 2/01/21, 04:23 pm

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that governors have enormous power to rule by edict during wartime-like circumstances. After seeing restrictive lockdown orders in other states shutter churches, a group of Arkansas legislators enacted new legislation to prevent executive overreach.

House Bill 1211, the Religion Is Essential Act, sailed through the state’s House of Representatives on Thursday 75-10 with little vocal opposition. The new legislation protects churches from being singled out for discriminatory action by state or local government officials.

“Arkansans and legislators are looking at what’s happening around the country with state actions taken against churches and religious groups ... and litigation where churches have had to go to court to protect their right to gather because they have been held to a different standard,” said David Cox, assistant director of the Arkansas Family Council.

The bill’s broad terms prohibit the government from penalizing religious organizations that meet during an emergency. Banned penalties include withdrawing state tax exemption, disallowing charitable tax deductions made to churches, or excluding religious organizations from grants or other benefits allowed secular counterparts. Under the law, state and local officials couldn’t restrict a religious organization from continuing to operate or hold services during a disaster or emergency. It gives churches a right to sue and obtain damages for violations. The bill stands a good chance in the state Senate, and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson will likely sign it.

Arkansas is not the only state taking action, said Alliance Defending Freedom counsel Greg Chafuen: “Ohio passed a law last year guaranteeing the right of churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship to remain open, and many other states are currently working on legislation like Arkansas’ that protects religious organizations from being treated worse than secular businesses.”

The Arkansas bill’s legislative findings point to Supreme Court rulings that struck down or directed lower courts to reconsider executive orders that targeted places of worship. In November, the justices chastised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for targeting New York City-area Orthodox Jews and Catholics, striking down orders aimed at religious gatherings.

Some judges seem to have gotten the message, while others have skirted it. A panel of a federal appeals court in December threw out Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive order favoring casinos over churches, which were subject to a 50-person cap. But different panels the same court earlier this month upheld California’s almost yearlong complete ban on indoor worship in all but four small rural counties.

“We don’t certainly don’t want to tie the hands of our public officials when it comes to dealing with an emergency,” Cox said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure churches are protected so that they don’t get singled out.”

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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    Posted: Tue, 02/02/2021 10:04 am

    Correction made for the photo caption. Thank you, World! (Residents of Kansas and Arkansas would likely confirm the correction.)

    Posted: Tue, 02/02/2021 09:44 am

    Good catch! It appears it was corrected.

  • WORLD’s Mickey McLean
    Posted: Tue, 02/02/2021 11:24 am

    Thank you for pointing out the error. As you note, we have corrected it.