Legislation to impede church closings advances

Legislation that would protect places of worship from government-ordered closures during a pandemic has advanced from a state House committee.

House Bill 2648, by Rep. Jon Echols, states that any “order or rule issued by any governmental entity pursuant to an emergency that requires closure of any place of worship” shall be considered “a substantial burden even if the order or rule is one of general applicability.”

That change would require state and local governments to demonstrate that whatever policy goals are pursued through mandatory closure of a place of worship cannot be achieved by less-intrusive means.

Rep. Brian Hill, who presented the bill in committee, said churches have often been targeted by various government officials even as those same officials allow other activities involving large groups to proceed.

“We saw three separate states, not federally directed, that chose to arrest pastors, put pastors in jail, because they did the exact same thing that large box stores across the street from them did that same day,” said Hill, R-Mustang. “We saw one church in one state that officers blockaded their drive to keep them from having outside services when they were trying to abide by the ordinance that was put in place. These things are egregious, and I find that Oklahomans find them egregious, and I believe that’s why this is so crucial.”

Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, said, “I know that kind of foolishness isn’t going to happen in our state.”

But Hill responded that some severe restrictions were placed on churches and other places of worship in parts of Oklahoma.

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