The “Live Free or Die” state struck a blow for religious liberty Tuesday as Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill designating churches as essential services.
The legislation specifies, “Nothing in this section shall prohibit the state government from requiring religious organizations to comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements issued by the state or federal government that are applicable to all organizations and businesses that provide essential services.”
So in other words, churches get equal protection under the law, which is what the U.S. Constitution requires.
The religious liberty legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom praised Sununu and the New Hampshire legislature for the new law.
“Houses of worship and religious organizations provide soul-sustaining operations that are essential to our society and protected by the First Amendment. While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating houses of worship and religious organizations worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms,” ADF attorney Greg Chafuen said in a statement.
“This bill makes it clear that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations without violating the Constitution,” he added.
It’s great to see this proactive move by New Hampshire, right in the heart of New England, which of course isn’t exactly the Bible Belt, but does have a history of standing for liberty going back a couple of hundred years.
The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the subject of COVID church shutdowns in a pair of California cases earlier this year.
In July 2020, Harvest Rock Church senior pastor Ché Ahn disregarded an order from California Gov. Gavin Newsom that shut down over 90 percent of indoor worship services in the state.
The Pasadena-based church also sued the governor and the state, arguing the congregation’s First Amendment rights were being violated. The cases eventually wound their way up to the Supreme Court.
“As a pastor, I believe we have been essential for 2,000 years,” Ahn told KCBS-TV.
“No one’s above the Constitution, no one’s above the law,” he said during a Sunday worship service after making the decision to sue, and he also called on his congregation to pray that the church would win its court case.
Never in the history of this state has the government told churches how to worship. It’s a tremendous violation of our first amendment rights. We are taking a stand for the church, our religious freedom and the Constitution. We are contending for the freedom to continue to meet. pic.twitter.com/GWhejou7gR
— Ché Ahn (@che_ahn) July 20, 2020
In February, the court ruled 6-3 in Harvest Rock’s favor, but left a 25 percent attendance limit and ban on singing in place.
In April, however, Newsom lifted the attendance limits and the singing ban following another Supreme Court decision striking down his ban on in-home religious meetings.
The court said, in a 5-4 ruling, “California treats some comparable secular activities more favorably than at-home religious exercise, permitting hair salons, retail stores, personal care services, movie theaters, private suites at sporting events and concerts, and indoor restaurants to bring together more than three households at a time.”
Finally, in May, Newsom and the state of California entered into a settlement agreement with Harvest Rock Church barring the state from placing any pandemic restrictions on worship services that are more severe than ones imposed on other gatherings.
“According to the permanent injunction, churches and places of worship may never again have discriminatory restrictions placed on them that are not equally applied to a long list of ‘critical infrastructure’ or ‘essential services’ as outlined in several Supreme Court precedents cited in the settlement,” CBN News reported.
The Supreme Court got it right, and now the state of New Hampshire has codified the right decision into law.
Religious liberty is winning the day, which is something worth celebrating.
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