Florida bill SB 254, which was approved by the Senate in January, would officially designate religious services as being essential and therefore allow houses of worship, including churches, to remain open and host public gatherings in the event of a public emergency or disaster. The governor received the measure on June 17 and has until June 30 to act on it.
“An emergency order authorized by this part may not directly or indirectly prohibit religious services or activities,” the bill states.
It adds that the only circumstance of a shutdown is “in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction [and] 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.”
If signed into law by DeSantis, the provisions would take effect on July 1.
The Sunshine State will then be one of a dozen states to exempt houses of worship from stay-at-home orders. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many churches were forced to close, while liquor or marijuana stores remained open. Some houses of worship streamed their services online.
Amid the pandemic, DeSantis issued a temporary statewide emergency order in April 2020 (pdf) outlining “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship” as essential services and activities, after states such as Washington, New York, and California shuttered local places of worship.
“I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church,” DeSantis told reporters during a news conference at the time. “I’m certainly not going to do that.”
The draft legislation SB 254 would make the executive order permanent.
Bill sponsor state Sen. Jason Brodeur, a Republican, said earlier this year that the importance of houses of worship was one takeaway from the pandemic, according to Florida Politics.
“Basically, if Target and Publix are open, so too should be the religious institution,” he said.
Arizona, Kentucky, and South Carolina signed similar bills in April to protect residents’ right to religious freedom, declaring religious services essential in times of state emergencies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June 2021 to prohibit government agencies from ordering churches and houses of worship to close, following health-related COVID-19 orders that mandated the closure of churches and other religious facilities.
In June 2021, DeSantis signed a measure that would require K–12 public schools to hold at least one minute of silence for children to meditate or pray.