INDIANAPOLIS — A bill that will allow religious activities to be treated as essential passed Tuesday in the House and Thursday in the Indiana Senate and is now headed to Gov. Eric Holcomb.
The bill designates religious activities as essential services and prohibits any restrictions on them during a declared emergency.
The measure would prohibit state and local orders from restricting anyone’s ability to attend religious services during disaster emergencies. The legislation also bars state and local orders from being more restrictive on churches than on other businesses considered to be essential.
Houses of worship would be allowed to hold services without regard to capacity size, social distancing or mask mandates, for example. However, restrictions could apply to their schools or daycares.
“I hope it’s another 500 years before we ever have another disaster ... like what our state and nation have experienced this last year,” said Republican Sen. Eric Koch of Bedford. “But should that arise, this should protect that very enshrined right in our Constitution.”
Holcomb prohibited in-person worship services early in the pandemic. Republican legislative leaders praise Holcomb’s leadership during the pandemic, but the governor has faced conservative discontent over the more than 60 coronavirus-related executive orders he’s issued beginning with the public health emergency order signed last March 6 — the day Indiana’s first confirmed COVID-19 infection was announced.
Senate Bill 263 says that state and local governments cannot put more restrictions on religious gatherings than on other essential businesses.
Resistance in the House came from Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, as he questioned the safety of opening churches fully.
“I’m trying to figure out if this is designed to protect institutions or people because right now, it is not protecting people,” Delaney said. “People are still dying from this terrible condition.”
Indiana did not have restrictions on religious services for long as Gov. Holcomb reopened churches with limited capacity in May 2020.
In April 2020, a PEW research study found that 10 states were preventing in-person gatherings and 15 states were allowing religious gatherings to continue without capacity restrictions. All other states had some form of restriction to adhere to COVID-19 safety guidelines.
Now, 76% of U.S adults who normally attend religious services say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident they can attend safely despite the COVID-19 pandemic, according to another PEW study.