Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signs law designating churches as essential services, banning gov’t mistreatment

Gov. Eric Holcomb
Inidana Gov. Eric Holcomb at a vaccine press conference on April 6, 2021. |

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a new law that prohibits the state government and its agencies from treating a religious body worse during a public health emergency than secular entities.

Known as Senate Enrolled Act 263 and signed Thursday, the legislation designates houses of worship as essential services and thus prohibits them from being treated worse than secular entities.

“Religious organizations provide essential services that are necessary for the health and welfare of the public during a disaster emergency,” reads SEA 263 in part.

“[T]he state and a political subdivision may not impose restrictions on … the operation of a religious organization; or … religious services that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on other businesses and organizations that provide essential services to the public.”

The new law clarifies that it “does not prohibit the state or a political subdivision from requiring a religious organization to comply with a generally applicable health, safety, or occupancy requirement that is neutral towards religious organizations and equally applicable to any organization or business that provides essential services.”

“However, the state or political subdivision may not enforce any health, safety, or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service unless the state or political subdivision demonstrates that applying the burden to the religious service in this particular instance is essential to further a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” it continued.

Alliance Defending Freedom's legal counsel Greg Chafuen issued a statement Friday in support of the new law, saying that “religious organizations 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 Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment ‘cannot be put away and forgotten’ even in a pandemic,” Chafuen said.

“We commend Gov. Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature for making it clear that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations.”

Authored by Indiana state Sen. Eric Koch in January, the bill passed the state House of Representatives by a vote of 74–20 and then the Senate by a vote of 36–10.

Critics of the legislation included the Indiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which claimed that the measure gave special treatment to houses of worship.

“The right to exercise one’s faith, including the freedom to hold and attend worship services, is among our most fundamental rights,” stated the ACLU of Indiana back in January.

“But religious freedom does not entitle religious institutions to receive special exemptions from the law if it would pose a grave risk to the health and lives of individuals and the public health. SB 263, however, would authorize just that.”

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum signed a similar bill into law in March, likewise preventing state health officials from, among other things, issuing emergency orders that treat religious bodies worse than secular entities unless there is a compelling state interest.

The new North Dakota law stated that “any orders relating to disease control measures” cannot substantially “burden a person's exercise of religion unless the order is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."

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