While other states fight in court for religious freedom during the pandemic, Arkansas is taking the lead in protecting churches. A bill that limits the governor’s power to close churches and that broadens religious liberty protections for houses of worship recently became law.
The bill is seen as a response to recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that found similar broad closures of Churches in California and other states unconstitutional. The Arkansas law leaves no room for doubt.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said 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 to House Speaker Matthew Shepherd. “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 emergency. 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, and the 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,” ADF legal counsel Greg Chafuen said “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.”
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice