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LegislationP&C: Conservative lawmakers seek to ensure SC churches stay open during future emergencies

COLUMBIA, S.C. — After watching more liberal states shut down or limit religious gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a group of conservative state lawmakers is seeking to ensure that South Carolina will never be able to to take similar action if another pandemic arises in the future.

A new bill would add to South Carolina’s already existing Religious Freedom Act by formally classifying religious services as essential during states of emergency, saying they are “considered necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public.”

That means churches or other houses of worship could not face more stringent restrictions than any other services considered essential.

The effort is an attempt to prevent South Carolina from following in the footsteps of states like California and New York, which sought to ban religious gatherings in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.

But that issue never arose in South Carolina. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster steadfastly refused to restrict religious services, saying he could not trample on their First Amendment rights.

State Rep. Richie Yow, the lead sponsor of the bill that has 25 GOP co-sponsors, told a House subcommittee on Feb. 16 that South Carolina’s decision to let churches stay open through this pandemic does not mean it could attempt a different approach in the future.

Yow, R-Chesterfield, said he had been questioned whether South Carolina had ever shut down churches.

“I said, ‘No, but we’re not guaranteed the answer for tomorrow,’ ” he said.

The subcommittee voted 4-0 in favor of the bill, H.3105, sending it to the full committee for the next step. Already two dozen other House members, mostly Republicans from the Upstate, have signed on as co-sponsors.

South Carolina was among 15 states that never impeded religious gatherings. According to the Pew Research Center, 10 states banned services completely due to COVID-19. Other states, including North Carolina, limited gatherings to 10 people or fewer.

While the U.S. Supreme Court initially rejected a California church’s attempt to overturn that state’s restrictions on in-person religious services, it later ruled against the restrictions in that state and several others.

State Rep. Jason Elliott, R-Greenville, said he does not foresee church closures becoming an issue in South Carolina.

“But if you were in one of those (other) states at different times, you might not have foreseen that your religious rights would be violated in those states,” Elliott said. “So I appreciate this and I plan to support it.”

Five members of the public, including multiple pastors around South Carolina, testified in favor of the bill; none spoke against it.

State Rep. Spencer Wetmore, D-Charleston, asked some speakers at the hearing why the bill is necessary, pointing to the Supreme Court’s recent rulings on the issue.

“Despite the fact that there are protections for the exercise of religion, the unfortunate fact remains that laws are occasionally passed that do violate those rights, and this is necessary to ensure that the state will not take those measures,” responded Greg Chaufen, legal counsel at the Alliance for Defending Freedom.

Wetmore ended up voting in favor of the bill.

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