Gov. Brian Kemp plans to make Georgia a "sanctuary state for people of faith" by introducing legislation that would limit the power of future governors to shut down churches should the nation face another pandemic like COVID-19.
In an interview with CBN News Wednesday, Kemp discussed the "Faith Protection Act," which he announced earlier this month would bar Georgia governors from using emergency powers to “specifically limit the practice of any religion” after seeing the impact of such actions in other states.
“... my goal is for us to be a sanctuary state, if you will, for people of faith,” Kemp told CBN. "I think this pandemic has shown us that ... people will overreach, especially people in positions of power, and that's not good. ... Looking around other states, it was concerning to me that we shouldn't have any governor or a future governor be able to stop religious services."
Kemp stressed that religious freedom is “embedded in our Constitution as a fundamental right of this country" and explained that Georgians were never forced to shut down religious services during the pandemic but worked to implement safety guidelines by either worshiping virtually or holding services outdoors. Though it was not mandated, many Georgia pastors decided to close their churches to in-person services to reduce infections among their congregations.
“Our church leaders really worked with us …,” Kemp continued. “ ... we asked them to help us be part of the solution, not part of the problem, by either going online, doing outdoor services, socially distancing, limiting the number of people that could worship, but we never shut anything down. I’m proud to say that, and we don’t want that to happen in the future, and that’s what we’re fighting for."
According to Kemp, while the legislation limits future Georgia governors' emergency powers, they would still have some flexibility.
Georgia is among the states that never implemented a mask mandate. Instead, the governor encouraged Georgians to wear masks, social distance and wash their hands. While there wasn't a statewide mask mandate, city officials could implement citywide mask mandates, such as in Atlanta, The New York Times reported.
While vulnerable populations were encouraged to stay home, the state was among the first to ease restrictions for the general population as other states extended lockdown orders. Along with churches, other establishments that have reopened include gyms, salons, restaurants and entertainment venues.
In August, Georgia also joined some states in allowing public schools to reopen.
However, not all schools have reopened, which led the governor to add teachers and school employees to the next vaccine priority list so that those districts can resume in-person classes for students.
On Thursday, Kemp announced the expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to include 450,000 teachers and school staff starting on March 8.
“Our children cannot afford to wait until the fall. The costs are simply too high. Georgians deserve to return to normal as soon as possible, and that will not happen without schoolhouse doors open for face-to-face instruction each and every day," Kemp said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Since the tracking of COVID-19 cases began nearly a year ago, Georgia has had 980,000 infections and 16,756 deaths among its population of 10.6 million as of Sunday, according to the Times.
In his Feb. 18 statement about The Faith Protection Act, Kemp said: "During the COVID-19 pandemic, people of all faiths across America were told by state governments how, where, when, or even if they could worship at all. Not in Georgia. We chose to work alongside congregations across our state to ensure they practiced their faith safely and in accordance with public health guidance.”
Last April, Kemp met with over 600 Georgia Baptist pastors on Zoom to discuss how churches could still do ministry during the stay-in-shelter order that went into effect at that time, The Christian Index reported.
“I have a strong belief that now, more than ever, our people need their faith leaders,” Kemp said back in April. “It is a time to put our faith in the Good Lord and have His guidance in this. That’s what the government was built upon, and we’re living that out.”
Kemp stressed during the call that it would be unwise to disallow church services and said, “Our people need [church services] more than ever.”
On April 3, Kemp released an executive order that listed 20 guidelines for how churches should gather. At the time, he encouraged leaders to use common sense when making decisions for their congregation.
Kemp said churches could reopen in-person if leaders complied with social distancing and sanitary guidelines. Last May, however, over a dozen Macon-area pastors protested Kemp’s orders to begin reopening churches and public places due to the threat of the virus, 13WMAZ reported.
In response, Kemp contended that it was mentally unhealthy to remain isolated for months without being able to worship. “It really is the fabric of who we are …” he said. “We want that to be the case in the future.”