Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law Thursday that calls churches and religious organizations "essential services" and limits how the state can restrict them during an emergency.
Holcomb, a Republican, signed the bill less than a month after it passed the state Senate, 36-10, and the state House, 74-20.
The bill's sponsors say it is needed to protect churches during future emergencies similar or even worse than the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to local and state governments shuttering churches.
"Religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency," the bill's text says.
The state and its "political subdivision" may not impose restrictions on churches and religious organizations that are "more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on other businesses and organizations that provide essential services to the public," the text says.
The new law specifically allows the state to order a "religious organization to comply with a generally applicable health, safety, or occupancy requirement," but it must be "neutral towards religious organizations and equally applicable to any organization or business that provides essential services."
The law also includes a section allowing individuals to sue the state if they believe their religious liberty rights have been violated.
Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that specializes in religious liberty cases, applauded the new law.
"Houses of worship and religious organizations provide soul-sustaining operations that are essential to our society and protected by the First Amendment," said Greg Chafuen, ADF legal counsel. "While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment 'cannot be put away and forgotten' even in a pandemic. This means that the government can't treat churches worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms without violating the Constitution."
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.