Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill ensuring that religious institutions will be the last to be closed during an emergency lockdown.
DeSantis on Friday signed SB 254, which states that an emergency order may not directly or indirectly prohibit religious services or activities unless the government requires all entities, such as businesses and government offices, to cease activities.
The law doesn't force churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship to remain open during future crises. However, the institutions will be able to close if they choose to.
The law will take effect July 1.
State Sen. Jason Brodeur and state Rep. Nick DiCeglie — both Republicans — sponsored the legislation, which passed the Florida Legislature with bipartisan support.
The state Senate passed the measure 31-3 in January, and the House followed with an 88-29 vote in March, when the majority of Democrats opposed the proposal.
"If you think about the act of going to a house of worship, for most, it functions very much like a restaurant," Brodeur said, Orlando Weekly reported. "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."
In April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, DeSantis issued a temporary statewide emergency order outlining "attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues, and houses of worship" as essential services and activities, The Epoch Times reported.
Florida’s action was different than states such as Washington, New York, and California, which shuttered local places of worship.
"I don’t think the government has the authority to close a church," DeSantis told reporters at the time, The Epoch Times reported. "I'm certainly not going to do that."
After the threat of COVID-19 intensified during the pre-vaccine period, DeSantis advised against "packed" religious gatherings.
"We want people during this time to be spiritually together, but to remain socially distant," DeSantis said April 6, 2020.
The Supreme Court on Nov, 25, 2020 barred restrictions on religious services in New York that Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had imposed to combat the coronavirus.
In an unsigned opinion, the majority said Cuomo’s restrictions violated the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.
In April 2021, Democrat California Gov. Gavin Newsom backed off his coronavirus pandemic restrictions on gathering for worship.
"In response to recent judicial rulings, effective immediately, location and capacity limits on places of worship are not mandatory but are strongly recommended," the California state website read.
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