New Hampshire governor signs bill establishing worship services as “essential” in future public health emergencies
New Hampshire is the latest state to enact legislation in response to the controversies surrounding COVID-related restrictions on worship services. HB 542 requires the state to treat religious organizations as an “essential service.” Here is an excerpt from the bill, which was signed into law by the governor last week.
[D]uring a state of emergency, the state government shall permit a religious organization to continue operating and to engage in religious services to the same or greater extent that other organizations or businesses that provide essential services that are necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public are permitted to operate.
State legislatures have engaged in a variety of approaches to this issue. In June, Texas enacted a law that bars the government, “at any time,” from prohibiting religious activities by religious organizations. New Hampshire’s law clarifies that religious organizations will be subject to any neutral restrictions that apply to essential services, provided the restrictions are necessary to further a compelling government interest:
Nothing in this section shall prohibit the state government from requiring religious organizations to comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements issued by the state or federal government that are applicable to all organizations and businesses that provide essential services. Provided, however, that the state government shall not enforce any health, safety, or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service unless the state government 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.
As I wrote in a previous post, a coalition of religious organizations including BJC issued a statement earlier this year expressing:
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.
…[W]e 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.
BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks told Baptist News Global earlier this year that 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. 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 from April 2021 here.