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A bill in the South Carolina Senate that classifies churches as essential in a pandemic or other emergencies has advanced, stipulating that they can stay open so congregants are allowed to meet in person as long as other essential businesses can as well.
The bill, H. 3105, was unanimously approved by a Senate subcommittee last week. Dubbed the “Religious Freedom Act,” it is now on its way to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill passed the House last March.
Supporters of the bill recognize that the state did not close down any churches when other businesses were shuttered in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic raged, according to Fox News. But they believe the proposal is necessary to ensure it never happens to churches in the state after watching other states take the gratuitous opportunity to shut churches down over the emergency.
On Tuesday, no one spoke out against the bill as it was passed. The bill affirms that the state will be allowed to require religious organizations to follow safety protocols and occupancy rules during emergencies.
(Video Credit: WCNC)
Republican State Rep. Richie Yow proposed the legislation, according to The State, after hearing from a number of religious and conservative leaders about the difficulty they faced when trying to hold and attend religious services during the start of the pandemic when numerous non-essential businesses were ordered to close.
Gov. Henry McMaster decided not to close religious services down under his state of emergency, but churches were forced to innovate in order to continue holding worship services, proponents said.
Last spring while temporarily closing restaurants, beauty salons, gyms, and other businesses due to COVID, McMaster repeatedly stated closing churches would violate the freedom of religion provision in the U.S. Constitution.
“We can’t be guaranteed those who occupy the highest office in South Carolina will always have the right attitude to protect the church,” said Tony Beam, who is a director at North Greenville University and the state Baptist Convention, according to the Post and Courier.
The pastor at Restoration Worship Center, Tony Foster, told The State that his church was forced to close its doors for in-person services for two months in 2020 in Greenwood while other businesses that were deemed essential were allowed to remain open.
“Our congregation had to close down like everyone else. We wanted to make sure everyone was safe. What we ran into was the whole idea that came across in America that everything else was essential, like grocery stores and different places, but the church wasn’t,” Foster claimed.
Foster remarked churches and houses of religion are most important during times of need among congregants.
“People need faith,” he commented. “In a time of upheaval and oppression, people need faith.”
Mitch Prosser, who is the vice president of the conservative group Palmetto Family, called religion an essential service when speaking with the media outlet.
“We need the church for community involvement, addiction, for broken people,” he put forth. “The church is essential.”
In South Carolina, decisions on if and for how long churches would close were left up to the leaders of each congregation, not politicians. The state did, however, issue guidelines in May 2020 for how they could safely reopen.
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