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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A proposal that would keep churches and other religious institutions open during declared emergencies was approved Wednesday by a key House committee as the full Senate is slated to take up the issue Thursday.

Rejecting arguments that the proposal is too broadly written, the House State Affairs Committee voted 15-7 along party lines to approve the measure (HB 215), which would prohibit emergency orders from “directly or indirectly” preventing religious institutions from conducting services or activities.

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House sponsor Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, pointed to a staff analysis to temper concerns raised in an email making the rounds in the Capitol that the proposal implies the government has the authority to regulate churches.

The bill comes after high-profile situations about churches in various parts of the country being forced to close or scale back early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many types of businesses, such as big-box retailers, were deemed “essential” and allowed to stay open during the early stages of the pandemic.

“It’s not so much bringing the church up to what box stores are allowed. It’s the other way around,” DiCeglie said.

“Recent litigation in 2021, in April of last year, the United States Supreme Court granted injunctive relief in a challenge to California’s emergency order that restricted among other things, religious gatherings,” DiCeglie continued. “And so, this bill essentially codifies what was laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court in that specific case.”

In voting against the measure, Democratic lawmakers said the proposal needs to be more specific about how houses of worship can be regulated in extreme emergency situations.

“I just think we should say what we mean in this bill and be very specific, so that we’re not tying the hands of future leaders to do what they need to do,” Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, said. “Because there will come a time when it’s something that we all agree on and we’re trying to save lives.”

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said being more specific about how religious institutions are handled during emergencies could avoid courts stepping in when the law is questioned.

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Committee Chairman Ralph Massullo, R- Lecanto, said the onus would remain on people issuing emergency orders to define how religious institutions are handled.

“I see, basically, churches as equal to big box stores, liquor stores,” Massullo said. “It would be very easy to define no more than X number of people in a certain square footage, if that’s indeed what the emergency would actually entail, if we truly follow whatever science is available at that time.”

Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-Saint Johns, said the proposal would reinforce that the state can’t discriminate against religious organizations.

“If people can gather in a home, they can gather in a home for a friendly dinner, they can gather in a home for a church service, or for a prayer meeting or for whatever kind of religious activity that they choose,” Stevenson said. “It is freedom, freedom of religion, and this has not been a problem in any other application of the law. I just think it brings to the fore that even in a state of emergency the freedom of religion applies.”

The bill needs approval from the House Judiciary Committee before it can be heard on the House floor. An identical measure (SB 254) is set to appear Thursday on the Senate floor.

Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency on March 9, 2020, as the pandemic began to hit the state. Among the more than 50 supplemental coronavirus-related executive orders that DeSantis issued, one provided that certain essential businesses and establishments could operate at reduced capacities, including churches, synagogues and other houses of worship.

The exemption came shortly after the pastor of a Tampa megachurch was arrested for holding two in-person church services in violation of a Hillsborough County ordinance prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. The charges were eventually dropped.

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