“Church is Essential Act” passes Kentucky House, ACLU shares dismay
Rep. Shane Baker sponsored House Bill 43, called the “Church is Essential Act”
FRANKFORT, Ky. (WTVQ) – Tuesday, the House chamber passed House Bill 43, dubbed the “Church is Essential Act” but not everyone is in support.
According to bill sponsor Rep. Shane Baker, the bill is meant to prohibit a governmental entity from prohibiting worship services during a state of emergency.
“As given to us in the Bill of Rights, every American citizen has the right to practice and exercise their religion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, churches were told they could not meet in-person, and if they did, their actions would be reported to the governor. This was a violation of our rights, and it should never happen again. With this legislation, the government cannot ban churches from meeting in-person, and it ensures that every person has the right to practice their religion how they please,” said Rep. Baker.
HB 43 would exclude houses of worship from emergency condemnation authority and prohibit a governmental entity from prohibiting religious services during an emergency to a greater extent than imposed on other essential services. According to Rep. Shane Baker, it also prohibits the government from taking any discriminatory action against religious organization on the basis of the organization’s religious beliefs.
Baker added, “People go to worship and pray in times of need, and during the pandemic many of us needed spirituality like we never have before. Places of worship are an essential service and in the future should be labeled as such. I am hopeful that with this legislation, people will never have to lose access to in-person worship services.”
David Walls, Executive Director of The Family Foundation, applauded the bill, saying churches are essential to the spiritual, mental, and physical wellbeing of Kentuckians.
“With the passage of HB 43, churches will rightfully be recognized as essential to the wellbeing of our communities, and the governor’s emergency powers will never again be misused to treat religious organizations worse than secular businesses,” explained Walls. “The ‘Church is Essential Act’ will ensure that emergency powers are never again used to close the doors of the Commonwealth’s churches to people in need, while liquor stores, abortion clinics, and large retail stores still remain open.”
According to The Family Foundation, churches in Kentucky were forced to file lawsuits challenging Gov. Andy Beshear’s COVID orders that prohibited in-person church services and threatened criminal penalties. Kentucky’s state police were ordered by Beshear to document license plate numbers of church attendees and attach intimidating notices to their cars. HB43 would ensure that never happens again, according to The Family Foundation.
ACLU-KY Communications Director Angela Cooper gave a very different reaction to HB43, in a statement shared Tuesday, calling it a very poorly drafted bill.
“It could be construed to provide unprecedented criminal and civil immunity for religious organizations,” said Cooper. “Under the guise of providing protections for worship services during an emergency, the bill could create broad criminal and civil immunity for religious groups by effectively prohibiting the government from enforcing any law against religious organizations, as long they claim to be exercising their faith when engaging in unlawful conduct.”
Cooper says no new legislation is necessary to protect religious worship during emergencies.
“The Kentucky Constitution and Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act already protect religious freedom, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings affirm that, although some limits on worship services are permissible in rare circumstances, these restrictions may not be more severe than restrictions imposed on comparable secular gatherings,” shared Cooper. “This rule protects the right to worship while ensuring that courts and public officials have the flexibility needed to adequately address the worst of disasters.”
According to Cooper, the ACLU wrote to the House of Representatives to express concerns.
The “Church is Essential Act” is sest to be considered in the Kentucky Senate.