After a year in which churches have had to abide by different rules than those businesses deemed “essential” by state emergency orders like Big Box retailers, liquor stores, and casinos, Indiana is pushing back with a new state law that explicitly defines churches as “essential” and “necessary for the health and welfare” of the public, especially during an emergency.
The new law, known simply as Senate Enrolled Act 263, was signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb on April 22, after the measure overwhelmingly passed first the House 74-20 and then the Senate 36-10. It is the latest state action intended to protect the Church against tyrannical executive orders.
The Indiana legislation explicitly states that neither the state nor any officer or agency of the state is allowed to “impose restrictions on … the operation of a religious organization; or … religious services that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on other businesses and organizations that provide essential services to the public.”
Churches must still follow the public health guidance as required by any other business or entity. The legislation explicitly clarifies that the state can order “a religious organization to comply with a generally applicable health, safety, or occupancy requirement,” but any order must be “neutral towards religious organizations and equally applicable to any organization or business that provides essential services.”
The new law codifies the precedent set by a number of recent Supreme Court religious liberty decisions; since November 2020, the Court has repeatedly ruled that churches cannot be subject to more state-ordered restrictions than any other business or institutions during an emergency.
These rulings are already causing many governors to rescind their own executive orders as they relate to churches. This past weekend, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, for example, announced that churches can now operate at 100 percent capacity, after nearly a year of suffering under austere limits on the number of people who could attend indoor worship services. “The change was made in light of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that enjoin states from enforcing capacity limits on churches that are more restrictive than other entities like factories and schools,” Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in a statement.
Greg Chafuen, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented a number of churches that challenged the constitutionality of COVID-19 restrictions, hailed Indiana’s action, noting that the legislation also adds to the Court’s justification by officially recognizing the unique and beneficial role that churches play in helping church-goers and the larger community cope with health crises and other emergencies. In a statement, he said,
“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 Supreme Court has made clear that the First Amendment ‘cannot be put away and forgotten’ even in a pandemic. This means that the government can’t treat churches worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms without violating the Constitution.” We commend Gov. Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature for making it clear that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations.”
Scripture teaches the importance of the Church meeting together. Hebrews 10:24-25, NASB, says, “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
The passage shows us that meeting together provides the opportunity to encourage and strengthen each other, not only generally but in the pursuit of love and good deeds. Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
This time of isolation over the past year has been a struggle for many. Late last year, more than 12,000 medical and public health scientists and over 38,000 medical practitioners signed a petition late last year calling for an end to lockdowns due to the physical and mental health toll they were taking on society. As an example, depression and calls to suicide hotlines dramatically increased during COVID, as did drug use and drug overdose deaths. In Colorado alone, as early as June 2020, 13 percent of Americans had reported starting or increasing substance use as a way of coping with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. As the pandemic has continued, the crisis has only worsened. In Colorado alone, overdose deaths overall were up 20 percent over 2019, while overdose deaths involving fentanyl jumped 111 percent.
The Church is always essential — but especially during a crisis like a pandemic when people need spiritual and emotional support and resources. One Barna study, for example, showed that while Christians have struggled during the crisis, they were still more likely to feel love and support and a connection with loved ones than other demographics. The study also showed that Christians are more likely to look to the Church during tough seasons of life.
The Church is one body and when the members of the body are isolated for too long, everyone suffers. Church is beneficial and necessary for the spiritual and mental well-being of Christians — and for the larger community in need of love, support, and encouragement — and it is good that Indiana recognizes that.