BJC, other faith organizations issue statement on state legislation exempting religious organizations from emergency orders
A diverse coalition of religious and religiously affiliated organizations, including BJC, issued a significant statement in response to legislation being considered in a number of states that would expand religious exemptions from emergency orders designed to protect public health. After a year of legal disputes over the impact of COVID-19-related health orders on religious services, the bills seek to limit the ability of state and local governments to enforce public health restrictions against houses of worship.
As the statement explains, however, these measures risk going too far in tying the hands of public health officials:
As organizations that represent religious denominations or are formally affiliated with religious communities, we express our deep concern about the recent proliferation in a number of states of legislation seeking to exempt houses of worship and religious gatherings from the reach of regulations and emergency orders related to public health issues and emergencies such as COVID-19. We appreciate the desire to protect our right to worship and gather for religious activities. Too often, however, these bills are overly broad and could result in policies that threaten public health and safety.
Times of public crisis demand that all community leaders—religious, secular, and governmental—work together to find solutions. By giving religious gatherings a pre-emptive exemption from future emergency orders, we fear that these bills will unintentionally paint religious communities as part of the problem, not the solution, and thereby undercut our ability to partner with community leaders to defeat the crisis.
During this pandemic, the overwhelming majority of congregations have embraced the sacrifice necessary to protect public health, finding creative ways to worship together and to minister safely to the needs of the community. As the statement makes clear, these bills undermine that effort by pitting public health against religious liberty recklessly and unnecessarily. Now is not the time to further drive a wedge between those essential interests.
As BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks told Baptist News Global, our court system already has sufficient mechanisms for addressing those concerns:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that courts have the tools to evaluate challenges of government overreach in emergency public health-related orders,” she said. “Protecting religious freedom requires a careful assessment of the facts in each situation. That judicial approach, rather than overbroad legislation, is the better way to address such public health crises and ensure religious gatherings are not treated less favorably than other similarly situated activities.”
You can read the entire coalition statement here.