Ohio’s Republican-controlled legislature has pushed through a law that bans local or state officials from ordering all houses of worship in the state or in a particular geographic region to close.
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine signed the law Wednesday ― even though he hasn’t ordered churches to close during the COVID-19 pandemic and has reportedly never contemplated taking such a step, Cleveland.com reported.
The purpose of House Bill 272 is to protect Ohioans’ freedom of religion in the future, state Sen. Terry Johnson, a co-sponsor of the bill, told Cincinnati Fox affiliate WXIX.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen several states encroach on Americans’ First Amendment right of worship and assembly, disregarding it completely by forcing the closure of places of worship and religious institutions,” Johnson said. “While I am thankful that no such order was imposed in Ohio, this amendment is a preemptive step should we ever find ourselves in this situation again.”
The law goes into effect this winter, Cleveland.com reported ― when, according to some infectious-disease experts, a second wave of coronavirus cases and deaths could hit the U.S.
The vote was predominantly split along party lines, with nearly all the Democrats in the state legislature voting against the measure.
House Bill 272 also prohibits public officials from modifying Ohio’s election date or plans, except in cases of enemy attack, according to Cleveland.com. DeWine had postponed Ohio’s March primaries because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Houses of worship are already exempted from most of Ohio’s coronavirus restrictions, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The only health policy related to COVID-19 that touches churchgoers is the state’s mask mandate, which the governor issued in July. Clergy are still reportedly allowed to officiate services without masks.
Nevertheless, pastors with The Ohio Christian Alliance have asked the governor to exempt churches and other religious organizations from the mask mandate and pledged that they wouldn’t order congregants to follow the mandate during services.
“There’s no reason for a health department to be calling a church for what they’re doing in their sanctuary during worship,” Alliance President Chris Long told the Dispatch. “This is a First Amendment issue.”
Most states carved out religious exemptions to virus-related stay-at-home orders as COVID-19 started to emerge in the U.S., according to data collected by the Pew Research Center in April.
Many Americans weren’t fans of the wide berth offered to churches during this time, according to a Public Religion Research Institute survey also conducted in April. About 77% of those surveyed were against the idea of giving churches and religious organizations exemptions to stay-at-home orders.
As of Thursday, Ohio had reported more than 130,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 4,200 confirmed deaths, according to the state’s health department.
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By David Aaron
November 25, 2020