Beau Evans of Capitol Beat News Service provided this content for Polk.Today and other readers around Georgia to enjoy. Find additional state and political news at Capitol-beat.org.
Note: This story was edited by myself with additional information clarifying certain information from State Sen. Jason Anavitarte. – Kte
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 this past 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. Anavitarte clarified this specifically with Polk.Today to say that so long as houses of worship follow protocols they can remain open, they can do so. It doesn’t forbid the houses of worship to close.
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 March 5, 2021. “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 but separate from a bill limiting the governor’s emergency powers over religious groups in the House, sponsored by Rep. Kasey Carpenter.
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 (ACLU) 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.”
Anavitarte said to Polk.Today his bill has no official title other than to limit the emergency powers of the governor’s office in such times as these.
“In Georgia, we never shuttered churches, synagogues, or other places of worship because we value faith, family and freedom,” Kemp said in a statement. “With the Faith Protection Act signed into law, Georgia will be a sanctuary state for people of faith.”
Anavitarte added to Polk.Today that his bill has support from faith groups and business organizations like Faith and Freedom and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the NFIB and the Georgia Restaurant Association.