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Churches may remain open in future health crises

Some churches at the center of COVID-19 outbreaks have shunned attention or responded with defiance, while others have limited crowd sizes and encouraged congregants to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Some churches at the center of COVID-19 outbreaks shunned attention or responded with defiance, while others limited crowd sizes and encouraged congregants to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Churches and other religious institutions couldn’t be stopped from packing the pews during future health crises under a measure that started moving forward Tuesday in the Florida Senate.

The Senate Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee backed a measure (SB 254) intended to shield religious services from being shut down because of state emergency orders. The proposal came after high-profile disputes in various parts of the country about shuttering churches during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bill sponsor Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said the proposal wouldn’t preclude religious leaders from acting on their own to conduct services virtually during a crisis, but he thinks more people want the in-person experience.

“If you think about the act of going to a house of worship, for most, it functions very much like a restaurant,” Brodeur said. “If you wear a mask on the way in, once you're seated, that's kind of where you're sitting. And so, for folks, during a pandemic, a place of worship may be the most essential service that they can have, more so than a grocery store or movie theater or restaurant.”

Brodeur’s proposal would prohibit emergency orders restricting religious institutions from holding services or activities. However, an emergency order could prohibit such religious activities if the order includes a general provision applying to all entities in an area and is considered to fulfill a compelling governmental interest.

In backing the proposal, Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, sought assurances that church leaders would still get to determine how to operate.

"I miss my church. We're still doing virtual,” Gibson said. “And I see some of our congregation in the stores and things like that, and we all miss each other. For some of our seniors, this is their social time. But, certainly, the power of determining what's best for that church rests within those who are head of the church."

Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said the state shouldn’t allow local governments to close houses of worship during crises.