The new legislation comes in response to the period during the COVID-19 pandemic when churches were forced to close, but liquor stores remained open.
The State of Virginia is advancing a bill that would prevent the government from placing emergency restrictions on religious services as long as businesses and other secular facilities are open. The legislation comes in response to the time during the pandemic in which churches were closed and forced to hold their services virtually.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Virginia followed the same path of most states, placing strict restrictions on large gatherings, which included church services. The move was frustrating to some people of faith, who saw secular businesses allowed to stay open even while churches were continuously shuttered. At the time, some concerned groups brought lawsuits against the state to challenge the restrictions, but these were largely unsuccessful.
“During COVID, you could go to a state store and buy liquor,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. “But you could not go to church. This bill means the governor’s not gonna open liquor stores and close churches.”
Now, according to Virginia Mercury, the proposed bill was originally worded to make houses of worship completely exempt from any rules imposed under the state’s emergency powers. This version of the bill passed the Virginia House of Delegates, but when it reached the State Senate – controlled by the Democratic party – the bill’s authors scaled the proposal back. As it stands, the bill would place houses of worship at the “least restrictive level” of any shutdown orders.
The revised bill glided through the Senate in a 35-5 vote, with Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, noting that it recognizes and protects the First Amendment rights for worship services. He commented:
“At a minimum, we can certainly say they’re essential to a community,” Petersen said at a committee hearing earlier this month.
The bill is headed for the desk of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, who is expected to sign it to law. Youngkin has previously been very critical of the COVID-19 restrictions set by his predecessor, Gov. Ralph Northam.