FRANKFORT, Ky. (FOX 56) – The controversial question of closing churches to fight COVID-19 appears to be put to rest in Kentucky. Gov. Andy Beshear has signed the ‘Church is Essential’ Act, which guarantees protections for religious groups in future emergencies.
House Bill 43 was the very first bill ever sponsored by State Representative Shane Baker (R-Somerset). Baker was elected to the General Assembly in 2020 and said he got to work on the bill because of the restrictions he believed were adversely affecting churches, restrictions that came from the same person who ultimately approved the bill.
“The main frustration was you had other organizations that were deemed essential, liquor stores,” Baker told FOX 56.
On Tuesday, Beshear signed Baker’s bill. In a series of tweets, the Kentucky GOP blasted Beshear and claimed he hopes to cover for restrictions made against churches during the pandemic, including ordering state troopers to record license plates of churchgoers.
“I honestly was surprised, I truthfully thought it would be easier for him to let it become law without signing it, nevertheless I’m glad he has done it,” Baker said.
Greg Chafuen of Alliance Defending Freedom testified for the bill, which was modeled after similar legislation that has passed in at least four other states. It codifies a series of recent Supreme Court decisions related to First Amendment protections for religious organizations.
“It was after that situation there in Kentucky where we had the Supreme Court address the issue and make clear where their line should be drawn when states are using emergency powers,” Chafuen told FOX 56.
In a statement, Beshear spokesperson Scottie Ellis said the bill “does not eliminate but instead sets parameters and a process for regulating religious services and organizations in times of pandemic, which could provide a path for future leaders to take the necessary steps to protect Kentuckians without having those actions challenged in court.” Ellis added that Beshear encouraged drive-in and virtual services that he also attended.
“The states’ have the emergency powers, they can use them and this bill it doesn’t touch that but what It does say is when it’s using them and when it’s using them to prohibit free exercise it violates the constitution and this makes sure that the states will not use those emergency powers to treat religious organizations worse than other businesses,” Chafuen said.
In addition to granting protections to churches to continue worship during an emergency, the law now also opens up an avenue for a church to pursue a lawsuit if its leadership feels they have been discriminated by the government.
You can read Ellis’ full statement below:
“HB 43 does not eliminate, but instead sets parameters and a process for regulation of religious services and organizations in times of pandemic, which could provide a path for future leaders to take the necessary steps to protect Kentuckians without having those actions challenged in court. During the pandemic, the majority of Kentucky’s clergy and houses of worship went virtual and provided counsel on vaccines, prioritizing the health and safety of their people. As a person of faith, and also a Governor who has served during this pandemic, Gov. Beshear believes this is a workable framework for his administration and future leaders.”