SC Governor. signs bill protecting churches during pandemics

Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, pews, church
Members of the congregation participate in a mass at the National Shrine Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on June 22, 2020 in Washington, DC |

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has signed a law that prohibits the state from imposing greater restrictions on places of worship than on essential services during a state of emergency.

McMaster on Monday signed House Bill 3105 into law, which states that the government “may not limit the ability of a religious organization to continue to operate and engage in religious services during a state of emergency in greater extent than it restricts the operations or services of other organizations or businesses that provide essential services.

The legislation goes on to say that the state can “require a religious organization to comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements during a state of emergency” so long as they are “applicable to all organizations or businesses providing essential services” and “not to impose a substantial burden on religious services” unless there is a “compelling state interest”.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has represented many churches that have sued states over ongoing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions that were deemed unconstitutional, celebrated the news of the signing of the law of Caroline from the south.

ADF legal counsel Greg Chafuen said in a statement on Tuesday that “the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating places of worship and religious organizations worse than shopping malls, restaurants or gymnasiums.”

“This bill takes the modest step of ensuring that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations in violation of the Constitution,” Chafuen said.

“We commend Governor McMaster and the South Carolina Legislature for taking action to defend religious freedom in South Carolina.”

Primarily sponsored by State Rep. Richard Yow of Chesterfield, HB 3105 passed the South Carolina Legislative Assembly earlier this month, with a 39-2 vote in the Senate and 102-9 in the House .

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many state and local governments have been accused of treating churches worse than comparable secular entities when issuing lockdown policies aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

In November 2020, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn c. Cuomo that New York had unfairly singled out certain religious groups in its gathering restrictions.

“The members of this Court are not experts in public health, and we must respect the judgment of those who have particular expertise and responsibility in this area. But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be set aside and forgotten,” the majority concluded.

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively prohibiting many people from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.”

Earlier this month, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed a similar law, which exempted places of worship from specific emergency measures unless “these homes have become unsafe to a degree that would warrant a conviction. in the absence of a state of emergency”.

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