California Senator Brian W. Jones has introduced a bill that "ensures that religious organizations are treated fairly and allowed to operate under only the same restrictions of other essential services, while still allowing room for government to set safety parameters in the interest of public health needs."
Sen. Brian Jones (R-Ca.), representing his state's 38th Senate district, is seeking to remove restrictions placed on religious services in California in response to the COVID-19 pandemic through a new piece of legislation called the "Religion is Essential Act."
Jones stated in a tweet, "Practicing religion can be done safely, even during a pandemic. CA should not have turned those who practice religion into second class citizens," adding, "That’s why I introduced the #ReligionIsEssentialAct to ensure the government never tramples upon our religious freedoms again. #CALeg"
Click here to sign a form in support of SB 397.
California Governor Gavin Newsom's ban on indoor religious services was ruled valid by US District Judge Jesus Bernal of Riverside in December of 2020.
“The state has a compelling interest in curbing the spread of what is now the world’s deadliest infectious disease,” Bernal said. “This is why it is safer for individuals to be farther apart as opposed to closer together. This is why outdoor gatherings are safer than indoor gatherings. This is why singing and shouting, which expel more viral droplets, are riskier activities than sitting silently.”
Sen. Jones contends that such restrictions disproportionately affect religious services compared to other industries that have been deemed "essential."
"While all Americans hold a right to freely exercise their religious beliefs, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more stringent restrictions were placed on religious services than on other industries that have been deemed essential," reads an official fact sheet from Jones' website. "This restriction took away individuals’ rights to freedom of religion. The Governor made the decision that religion was not essential to Californians’ lives."
The new bill will designate religious services as an "essential activity."
"SB 397 will deem religious services as an essential activity during a declared state of emergency and ensure that the government does not impose any discriminatory actions against religious organizations," according to the fact sheet.
But the bill will also prohibit the government from "taking discriminatory action" against any religious organization by which other industries' services do not receive equal restrictions.
"This bill also prohibits government from taking discriminatory action against a religious organization by requiring religious services to be allowed, at the very least, to the same extent other essential services are permitted to operate," the sheet continues.
"This bill ensures that religious organizations are treated fairly and allowed to operate under only the same restrictions of other essential services, while still allowing room for government to set safety parameters in the interest of public health needs."
“Americans are guaranteed religious freedom and the right to congregate with fellow members at their chosen house of worship,” stated Senator Jones.
"For 11 months, California Governor Newsom used the excuse of COVID to violate those rights and his fellow Democrat legislators sheepishly sat on their hands and allowed it to happen. Mercifully, the United States Supreme Court recently stepped in and returned our religious rights, but the threat from Newsom and others to undermine those rights again is still looming."
Specifically, Jones’ SB 397 would:
Require that the Governor and local governments treat religious services as an essential service (just like retail) during any declared state of emergency; and
Prohibit the state and local governments from discriminating against a religious organization during an emergency; and
Require the state and local governments to permit religious services to continue operating during an emergency; and
Prohibit the state and local governments from enforcing a health, safety or occupancy requirement that imposes a substantial burden on a religious service during an emergency; and
Allow a religious organization that has been subject to state or local government overreach to file a claim for relief in an administrative or judicial proceeding.
SB 397 cites numerous court decisions with long-established precedents about religious freedom and also references scientific evidence about the essential role religion plays in Americans’ lives, health (physical and mental), and the economy (businesses and jobs).
“Why is it that Newsom and most Democrat politicians in our nation trust shoppers that are packed into ‘Big Box’ stores to social distance, but don’t trust leaders and congregants at houses of worship to do the same to protect the elderly and the vulnerable?” asked Senator Jones.
“Practicing one’s religion can be done safely, even during a pandemic, and the state should never have turned those who practice religion into second class citizens. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch stated, ‘Government actors have been moving the goalposts on pandemic-related sacrifices for months ... As this crisis enters its second year—and hovers over a second Lent, a second Passover, and a second Ramadan—it is too late for the State to defend extreme measures with claims of temporary exigency, if it ever could … if Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.’”
SB 397 is co-sponsored by California Family Council, Capitol Resource Institute, Judeo-Christian Caucus, and Real Impact. It is supported by Alliance Defending Freedom, Calvary Chapel Chino Hills, and The Salt & Light Council, and it is awaiting assignment to a Senate policy committee for a hearing.
A similar bill recently became official law in Arkansas:
Sign the SB 397 support form by clicking here.
Supporters of Sen. Jones' bill voiced their approval on Twitter: