As the pandemic rages on, it’s been clear over the course of the past year that churches have contributed to the rapid spread of the virus. By refusing to listen to scientists, hosting indoor and in-person gatherings where masks were often optional, and filing lawsuits against governors who were simply trying to protect the public from a deadly disease, Christian pastors bear a not-insignificant amount of blame for the 427,000 dead Americans.
And now Republicans in Arkansas want to make the problem worse.
Yesterday, the State House voted 75-10 (with 15 non-voting or present) in favor of HB 1211, a bill that would exempt places of worship from any kind of emergency declaration… unless the state first jumps through a series of hurdles.
The simple version of this new bill is that it would block the governor from shutting down churches in the event of a pandemic.
(b)(1) The Governor shall not prohibit or limit a religious organization from continuing to operate or engage in religious services during a disaster emergency under this subchapter.
(2)(A) This section does not prevent the Governor from requiring religious organizations to comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements issued under state or federal law that are applicable to all organizations and businesses.
(B) The Governor shall not enforce a health, safety, or occupancy requirement under subdivision (b)(2)(A) of this section that imposes a substantial burden on a religious organization unless the Governor demonstrates that applying the requirement to the religious organization is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.
The bill is more like catnip to religious conservatives than anything else — because it’s not like governors have specifically blocked churches from gatherings while allowing atheists to meet at a bar. But church leaders have routinely compared themselves — wrongly — to essential places like grocery stores… even though such places require face masks and don’t involve public singing much less lingering and chatting with strangers.
Still, this bill could create a new obstacle during an emergency when states might be trying to prevent a virus from spreading.
American Atheists is trying to sound the alarm:
“We are still months away from widespread vaccination yet lawmakers are giving churches special privileges to stay open and spread COVID-19. People will die as a result of this legislation,” warned Alison Gill, Vice President of Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “Church leaders and lawmakers are telling the world that people’s lives are less important than congregating without restrictions. It’s disgusting.”
Keep in mind that there’s no place of worship that needs to gather in person; they have options. We all do. We can gather online: over Zoom, over Facebook, over YouTube. Churches can still collect tithes online. But some pastors are so selfish and so ignorant about science, they would rather put everyone’s health in jeopardy in order to cosplay as a martyr for the faith. Plus they know they make more money in person than online.
Max Brantley of the Arkansas Times notes that the bill may be unconstitutional “for attempting to waive sovereign immunity for lawsuits against the governor,” but the symbolism may be more important that its success. It’s red meat for lawmakers who want to earn brownie points with a delusional right-wing base.
The bill now moves to the State Senate where Republicans will likely pass it too. Again, all this is happening as the pandemic continues wreaking havoc on the nation. But it won’t matter to Christians lawmakers who pretend they’re “pro-life” while advancing legislation that will inevitable create higher death counts.
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