After passing through two different committees in the Florida Senate, a bill (SB 254) giving religious institutions the right to stay open during a state of emergency has been put on the calendar to be considered by the entire Senate.
Introduced by Republican Senators, Keith Perry of Gainesville and Jason Brodeur of Lake Mary, SB 254 was approved by the Senate Rules Committee Thursday who voted 14 to 2, and was unanimously approved by the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security Committee in November.
The bill aims to define the term “religious institution” and establish that an emergency order “may not directly or indirectly prohibit religious service or activities.”
However, the bill does mention that a religious institution may be ordered to shut its doors if there is a “general provision in an emergency order which applies uniformly to all entities in the affected jurisdiction,” and if the provision is in, “furtherance of compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
While not stated in the bill, examples of compelling governmental interests that could result in an emergency order being applied to all entities in directing them to shut down are hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.
Expressing the argument behind the bill – which was said to be influenced by “learnings” from the COVID-19 pandemic regarding the distinction between essential versus nonessential businesses – Brodeur made the comment that, “Basically if Target and Publix are open, so too should be the religious institutions.”
Outside the support from Republicans who hold the majority in the Rules Committee, three of the five Democrats on the panel voted in favor of the bill. They included senators Randolph Bracy of Orlando, Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, and Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book of Plantation.
The two Democrats that opposed the bill were senators Gary M. Framer, Jr of Fort Lauderdale, and Minority Leader Pro Tempore Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach.
Stating his opposition towards the bill, Powell stated, “I can’t in good conscience support this bill because, in the midst of the pandemic, I know there were the number of people and number of institutions – and I’m as religious as anyone else, and my membership, my church, we took hiatus and went online – but there were a number of times religious institutions decided to gather, and the result of that cost many people their lives.”
He added, “Us authorizing them to buck the system while ignoring emergency orders is not what I think we’re here to do.”
In Brodeur’s response, he stated, “Religious institutions would have to comply with uniform orders. So, if there’s a hurricane coming and there’s a lockdown, that applies to everyone, that applies to religious institutions. … They [religious institutions] can’t be singled out as an entity that can’t congregate, when everybody else is out grocery shopping or doing other things. ”
If passed by the Senate and signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, the bill would take effect July 1st, 2022.
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Casey Owens is a contributing writer for The Florida Capital Star. Follow him on Twitter at @cowensreports. Email tips to email@example.com.
Photo “Jason Brodeur” by Jason Brodeur. Photo “Keith Perry” by Keith Perry. Background Photo “Roser Memorial Community Church – Anna Maria, Florida” by Paul R. Burley. CC BY-SA 4.0.