A House committee Wednesday discussed a bill growing out of the COVID-19 pandemic that seeks to expand existing law to further prevent government officials from interfering with religious gatherings.
House Bill 293, also called the Religious Freedom Protection Act, was written in response to COVID-19 safety procedures.
“You had cities, counties, and other government entities around the state, and certainly around the country as well, really, in my view, egregiously abusing power and closing places of worship down,” said Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield, the bill’s sponsor. “I don’t think that is something a government entity should ever do.”
The bill has been proposed in past legislative sessions. When Riley introduced it during the last session, it successfully passed the House but made it no further.
The bill unilaterally prohibits any public official from “limiting or prohibiting” the ability of religious organizations to hold meetings, though it makes exceptions for evacuation orders in case of natural disasters such as floods, and for cases where religious organizations are planning or committing “acts of violence or harm.”
Some at the hearing had questions about the bill’s necessity.
“Are you aware of any religious groups that are incapable, because of their beliefs, of meeting on Zoom?” Rep. Doug Mann, D-Columbia, asked Riley.
Riley said that he is not familiar with every religious doctrine and so he couldn’t say.
Timothy Faber, director of the Lake of the Ozarks Baptist Association, spoke in favor of the bill. Faber said he was for the bill because it would also apply to unelected government officials, such as those in health departments, who are otherwise not directly accountable to voters.
Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister and president of Christian media company Word&Way, spoke against the bill, saying it unfairly privileged religious organizations. He outlined federal protections for religion already in place.
“The First Amendment includes two religion clauses,” Kaylor said. “Not just free exercise, but also no establishment. These two clauses sit together and thus demand balance, and I think this bill upsets that balance.”
Kaylor said religious gatherings should be treated exactly the same as any similarly-sized, non-religious gathering. He explained that there is already state and federal law protecting the freedom of religion, which is enforced by the courts.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act states that when government is interfering in matters of religious freedom, there must be a “compelling government interest” and that the government must act in the least intrusive possible way in executing that interest.
“That’s the standard we currently have,” Kaylor said. “(This bill) says, even if you have a compelling interest, that doesn’t matter. You can’t do anything to the religious institutions. It completely preemptively exempts religious institutions from all public health rules, aside from the couple of exceptions that are given.”