A bill that limits the governor’s power to close churches and that broadens religious liberty protections for houses of worship became law in Arkansas this week.
The bill, HB 1211, passed by overwhelming margins in the state House and Senate in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that saw governments force churches to close their doors.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said Wednesday he would allow the bill to become law without his signature. He defended his actions during the pandemic, saying they had not infringed on religious freedoms.
“Great care has been taken by the executive branch to avoid infringing on these sacred rights,” Hutchinson said in a letter this week to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Churches and religious institutions are specifically excluded from any directives that could be interpreted as applicable to them.”
The new law applies to states of emergencies. It says the governor “shall not enforce a health, safety, or occupancy requirement” that “imposes a substantial burden on a religious organization” unless the governor “demonstrates that applying the requirement to the religious organization is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.”
The new law allows the governor to impose “health, safety, or occupancy requirements” on churches, but only if they are “applicable to all organizations and businesses.”
Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council said the new law will “help protect churches and religious groups from discrimination without hampering the government’s ability to respond to an emergency.” The Family Council backed the bill.
Alliance Defending Freedom also supported the bill becoming law.
“While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating houses of worship and religious organizations worse than comparable secular activities,” said ADF legal counsel Greg Chafuen. “Arkansas has taken an important step to defend this right by enabling religious organizations to keep their doors open and protecting them from discrimination based on their religious identity or conduct.”
The legislature’s findings about the new law state that religion “provides extensive benefits to the country by meeting the spiritual needs of the populace and by supporting vital social needs, including without limitation social services, health care, and economic activity.”
Photo courtesy: Debby Hudson/Unsplash
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.