COLOMBIA – A bill declaring religious services essential in South Carolina is advancing through the Legislative Assembly, with supporters saying it ensures the government cannot discriminate against ministries and force their doors to close during times of crisis and of need.
Dubbed the “Religious Freedom Act,” the bill was presented Feb. 15 to the full Senate Judiciary Committee with a unanimous vote, though supporters acknowledged that South Carolina had never demanded that in-person services stop amid the pandemic.
They cited examples of what has happened in other states, where churches had to close but liquor stores, for example, could stay open, and said they wanted to make sure that cannot happen here in a future emergency under a different leadership.
“We cannot guarantee that those in the highest office in South Carolina will always have the right attitude to protect the church,” said Tony Beam, director of the University of North Greenville and the Baptist Convention of South Carolina. ‘State.
In South Carolina, decisions about when churches should be closed and for how long have been left to individual congregation leaders, not politicians, though the state issued guidelines in May 2020 on how they might be closed. reopen safely.
Governor Henry McMaster’s multiple emergency declarations, which began in March 2020, have temporarily closed schools, gatherings and businesses deemed non-essential. But places of worship were exempt from his orders. He encouraged a suspension of in-person services, but repeatedly said he could not violate First Amendment religious rights. Most services were moved online as COVID-19 infections increased in the spring of 2020, although some continued to meet outdoors.
No one spoke against the bill, which the House passed in March.
Tony Foster, senior pastor of the Restoration Worship Center in Greenwood, said his church had been closed for about two months and the online services offered in the meantime were not sufficient to meet the needs of congregants.
“Our congregation had to close like everyone else. We wanted to make sure everyone was safe. What we encountered was the idea that came to America that everything else was essential, like grocery stores and different places, but the church was ‘said. “People need confidence in a time of pandemic, upheaval and depression.
“When the governor announced that we couldn’t close the churches, I said ‘Glory to God’ and we reopened,” he said, adding that they did so with the recommended precautions, including masks and social distancing.
The bill protects against potential hostility to the church, he said.
When asked if he had encountered any problems with the local authorities, Foster said no, “they’ve been very supportive, actually.”
A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California could not continue to ban indoor religious services, although judges allowed bans on indoor singing to continue. And they allowed the state to limit attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity.
This followed the judges’ ruling on a New York case barring that state from imposing attendance caps at churches and synagogues, limited to 10 or 25 people in areas with high COVID rates.
Dave Wilson, president of the Christian advocacy group Palmetto Family Council, said the bill’s progress shows that South Carolinians prioritize religious freedom.
“In our faith communities across the state of South Carolina, we each play a vital role in what we do to meet people’s needs,” he said. “Whether it’s your church, your mosque or your synagogue, we want to make sure it has the protection of the State of South Carolina and declare it a part essential to who we are in South Carolina.”
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