Churches and other places of worship would have to remain open in Georgia during public emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic under a measure that passed the state Senate on Friday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, would forbid Georgia governors from closing churches, mosques, synagogues or “other religious institutions” during a state of emergency.
It has backing from Gov. Brian Kemp who faced criticism for moving to impose distancing requirements in churches at the onset of the pandemic’s spread last March. He has also faced backlash for a largely hands-off approach to allowing businesses and churches to stay open during the pandemic.
Anavitarte’s bill also would allow Georgia businesses to remain open during emergency declarations so long as they comply with safety rules set by the governor.
“I think we as a people have a right to assemble in our churches,” Anavitarte said from the Senate floor on Friday. “As long as we follow the necessary health protocols that the experts put out there, we should be able to move forward.”
The measure passed the Republican-controlled Senate on a nearly party-line vote with Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, voting against. It now heads to the state House of Representatives.
Anavitarte’s legislation is similar to a separate bill limiting the governor’s emergency powers over religious groups in the House, sponsored by Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas.
Opponents argue barring churches from closing could endanger Georgians during a public-health crisis by promoting gathering spaces where viral outbreaks could occur. The American Civil Liberties Union called the measure “extreme, dangerous and unnecessary.”
“The right to exercise one’s faith is among our most fundamental constitutional rights,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU’s Georgia chapter. “But it is constitutionally appropriate for the government to place restrictions on religious activities and religious institutions.”
Kemp faced blowback from religious-freedom advocates last spring after authorities shut down a handful of local churches for congregating with too many people during the pandemic’s early days.
Despite the open-door policy, many churches and other places of worship have chosen to avoid resuming in-person services, opting instead to hold services online.
Kemp, who has credited his decision to let Georgia businesses largely stay open with shoring up the state’s economy, touted his move to work with local congregations rather than shutting them down. He threw his support last month behind Anavitarte’s bill, dubbed the “Faith Protection Act.”