The State House committee debated religion — and kept the discussion civil

The arrest of a Tampa Bay-area pastor for holding services in defiance of local anti-COVID restrictions on large gatherings has inspired legislation that would prevent officials from treating religious institutions differently from businesses, including big box stores.

Given the heat generated by religious conservatives over COVID restrictions, especially for churches, the debate over this measure (HB 215) before the House State Affairs Committee this week could have escalated into a shouting match.

He does not have. What we got was a reasoned exploration of religious freedom and its limits.

A Republican noted the subdued quality of Wednesday’s debate, which included the respectful response to testimony from Devon Graham, representing American atheists.

FL State Rep. Ardian Zika. Credit: FL House of Representatives.

“I couldn’t help but observe just a beautiful thing here in this room. It’s unique in America that a member of the atheist community comes to testify before our committee and members of the theist community come testify before our committee without fear of being persecuted by the government – without fear that when leaving this room there will be no paramilitary forces waiting for them to verify their identities or, when leaving the building, that the points of military control” hold them, said Pasco County State Rep. Ardian Zika.

The vote ended 15-7 in favor of the legislation. The next step is the Judiciary Committee before a possible vote in the House.

Meanwhile, the Florida Senate was to open a debate on similar legislation, SB 254Thursday afternoon.

Both bills are short, saying that no emergency ordinance can “directly or indirectly prohibit a religious institution from conducting regular religious services or activities.”

“However, a general provision of an emergency ordinance that applies uniformly to all entities in the relevant jurisdiction may be applied to a religious institution if the provision serves a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of promoting this compelling government interest. “, says the text.

This means that governments cannot treat churches, synagogues, mosques, temples or any other religious institution any differently than movie theaters, bowling alleys, retailers or any other entity.

The bill defines a “religious institution” as a “church, ecclesiastical or faith-based organization, or physical place established for worship in this state, in which nonprofit religious services and activities are regularly conducted and continued.” and includes bona fide religious groups that do not maintain specific places of worship,” according to a Legislative Staff analysis.

The term “also includes a distinct group or society which is an integral part of a religious institution and which is not primarily supported by funds solicited outside of its own members or congregation,” the analysis states.

This would cover The River at Tampa Bay Church, whose pastor, Rodney Howard Brownewas arrested in March after holding services in defiance of a Hillsborough County emergency order banning gatherings of more than 10 people that was aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.

The charges were dropped after Governor Ron DeSantis updated his own COVID emergency order to clarify that churches were “essential institutions” that could remain open.

Other religious institutions have chosen not to challenge the restrictions, preferring to stream services through streaming services rather than risk the health of parishioners.

Republican Nick DiCeglie introduces legislation requiring equal treatment of religious institutions under emergency declarations on January 26, 2022. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Under the local emergency order, “churches could not gather with more than 10 people. However, big box stores were able to operate without any of these restrictions. So this bill basically says you have to treat those two things essentially the same,” said bill sponsor Nick DiCeglie, a Pinellas County Republican.

Members of the committee received emails opposing the bill on the grounds that by stating that the government cannot lightly close religious gatherings, the bill would acknowledge its power to do so, if only only under emergency conditions.

Democrat Yvonne Hays Hinson, representing parts of Alachua and Marion counties, read excerpts from an email, though she did not identify the author.

“It opens a dangerous door, suggesting to future lawmakers that they can regulate churches for whatever reason,” Hinson read.

“I reject the idea that the government can shut down the church if they have a sufficient excuse,” she continued, still quoting. “People don’t need government permission to have a church.”

Substantial burden

DiCeglie responded that his bill follows the language in the Florida Religious Freedom Restoration Actwhich holds:

“The government shall not substantially burden the exercise of religion by a person, even if the burden results from a rule of general application, except that the government may not substantially burden the exercise of religion by a person unless it demonstrates that the application of the charge to the person: is it in pursuit of a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive way to promote this compelling government interest.

He admitted he couldn’t define ‘a compelling government interest’, but imagined it would include ‘a very, let’s just say, you know, catastrophic event, whether health or otherwise. I don’t know – I don’t want to speculate.

In other words, his bill would be no more or less restrictive on religious rights than permanent state law.

“My goal here is to protect the First Amendment right of those who want to assemble,” DiCeglie said.

“It’s not so much about bringing the church until box stores are allowed. It’s the other way around, if that makes sense.

Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith. Credit: Florida House

Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orange County Democrat, asked DiCeglie about the definition of religious activities the bill would protect. He contrasted Sunday Mass with a “revival concert” attracting “literally thousands of people”, but that might not be considered an “official service”.

A number of Democrats raised similar concerns about definitions of religious entities and the practice of voting against the bill.

DeCiglie said, “If you go to a concert and you listen to music, and that’s a way for someone to do it, you know how to exercise their freedom of religion, you know, I would think this project of law would protect that right.”

Ultimately, he conceded, the courts may have to “step in on this”.

“But I’m comfortable with that being broad, because, you know, these people are, you know, whatever activity they’re exercising their First Amendment rights and religious freedom in.”

Committee Chairman Ralph Massullo, a Republican representing Citrus and part of Henando Counties, agreed.

“It seems to me that we will never be able to define – nor should we – what is a religious activity, not in this country. We shouldn’t define that in good times and we certainly shouldn’t define it in times of emergency, where I think people would probably need more religion to adhere to,” Massullo said.

“I think it’s more incumbent on the policy maker who actually establishes the state of emergency to be a bit more careful in defining exactly what entities would be involved,” he said.

DiCeglie pointed out a April Decision in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that, to justify limits on religious observance, the government must demonstrate that “the religious exercise in question is more dangerous than other activities authorized by the government, even when the same precautions are applied.

Therein, he said, “is the spirit of this bill”.

The bill has won support from the Florida Family Policy Council, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Graham, the atheist lobbyist, opposed the bill. She raised a episode at a church in Arkansas in March 2020 in which 35 of 98 people who attended a service came down with COVID and three died. Twenty-six other cases were church-related, including one fatal.

“It’s an example of what happens when an organization is allowed to operate unchecked during such a crisis,” Graham said.

“The best way to keep Floridians safe during a public health emergency is to provide the public with guidelines that we should all follow,” she continued.

“You can say it’s about religious freedom all you want, but it’s not true. It’s a matter of religious privilege, and you’re putting the lives of every Floridian on the line.”

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