Kentucky grants churches ‘essential service’ status during state emergencies

by mcardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


Kentucky has passed a law requiring the government to treat houses of worship no differently than businesses or organizations designated as “essential services” in the event of a state emergency, including a pandemic, as reported by the Christian Post.

House Bill 43, which was signed into law by Gov. Andy Beshear (D) last week, exempts houses of worship from specific emergency measures unless “such houses have become unsafe to a degree that would justify condemnation in the absence of a state of emergency.”

The law bars any government agency from blocking or otherwise limiting churches “from operating or engaging in religious services during a declared emergency to the same or any greater extent than other organizations or businesses that provide essential services necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public are prohibited or restricted.” 

The state can still require religious organizations to “comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements” under the measure, as long as they do not go beyond requirements of other businesses deemed to be “essential.”

Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Greg Chafuen lauded the bill’s passage in a statement Tuesday, noting that houses of worship “provide soul-sustaining operations that are essential to our society and protected by the First Amendment.”

“While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating houses of worship and religious organizations worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms,” Chafuen said, adding that the measure protects religious organizations from discrimination during public emergencies.

“We commend Gov. Beshear and the Kentucky Legislature for taking this significant step to defend religious liberty for all Kentuckians,” he continued.

Kentucky is not the first state to enact legislation to protect churches from discrimination in public emergency policies. North Dakota passed a law last March establishing that state officials cannot treat “religious conduct more restrictively than any secular conduct of reasonably comparable risk, unless the government demonstrates through clear and convincing scientific evidence that a particular religious activity poses an extraordinary health risk.”

Similar laws were also passed in Indiana and New Hampshire

During the COVID-19 pandemic, several Democratic-led local and state governments were accused of broadly forcing churches to close or limit activities in order to slow the spread of the virus while allowing secular entities like bars and adult entertainment clubs to remain open. 

The U.S. Supreme Court in a November 2020 ruling found that certain New York restrictions unfairly singled out religious groups in a case filed against former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. 

The high court stated in its decision that “even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.” 

“The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty,” the ruling stated.

Meanwhile, governments in other states have been forced to pay out settlements to churches claiming their First Amendment rights were violated during the pandemic. Last May, California paid a $1.35 million settlement to Harvest Rock Church for unfairly singling the church out in its COVID-19 lockdown policies.