The Indiana legislature on Thursday sent a bill to the governor which would classify religious services as essential during declared disaster emergencies, and would prevent the government imposing any restrictions on religious services that are more restrictive than those imposed on other essential organizations.
“Religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency,” the bill reads.
The bill does not exclude the government from imposing health, safety, or occupancy requirements on religious services, provided that they are equally applied to other operations deemed essential.
In addition, these restrictions may not, the bill says, impose a “substantial burden” on a religious service without a compelling governmental interest, and the restrictions must be the “least restrictive means” of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
Churches throughout the U.S. filed several lawsuits in the past year against local authorities, complaining of unequal coronavirus restrictions on religious services in comparison to comparable secular activities.
New York state in October had limited indoor religious gatherings in certain areas to only 10 people, with other areas limited to 25 people, due to the spread of the virus in those areas, while allowing other venues to open and operate under far fewer restrictions.
The Supreme Court in November issued a ruling enjoining Governor Andrew Cuomo from enforcing those limits following an appeal from the Diocese of Brooklyn.
In California, Harvest Rock Church filed a lawsuit against the state over its restrictions on worship, which effectively prohibited all indoor services, while allowing stores and restaurants to open with capacity limits.
A district court would not grant its request to halt the restrictions. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the church in October, refusing to overrule the district court’s decision and saying that while the state provided expert testimony to support its public health restrictions, the church had not provided its own health expert to make its case.
In a November 2020 appeal to the Supreme Court, Harvest Rock alleged that Governor Gavin Newsom had applied a double-standard during the nine months of the pandemic, curbing religious services while allowing comparable non-religious gatherings and mass protests to continue “without numerical restriction.”
The Supreme Court accepted the church’s appeal, vacated the Ninth Circuit decision, and sent the case back to the circuit court for consideration in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brooklyn diocese case.
However, the appeals court ruled in January 2021 for a second time against Harvest Rock, deciding that a total ban on indoor worship services in most areas of the state is justified to block the spread of coronavirus, but also that the state could not enforce numerical restrictions on worshippers in certain areas.
A February unsigned order from the Supreme Court said that the total ban on indoor worship is unconstitutional. At most, the state may limit indoor capacity to 25% of normal.
High Plains Harvest Church in Eaton, Colorado, appealed to the Supreme Court in December against the state’s COVID restrictions, charging that the state’s restrictions were “transparently selective and discriminatory” in subjecting churches to limits that some retail stores were exempted from.
In response, the state reclassified houses of worship as “critical businesses,” exempting them from capacity limits to which other non-essential businesses were subject.