During an emergency, providing for the spiritual needs of a community can be just as essential as other forms of relief. A Gallup poll taken at the end of 2020 found that Americans who attend a weekly religious service are more likely than any other listed demographic group to say their mental health is "excellent." This group is also the only listed demographic where the percent of members with "excellent" mental health went up in 2020.
The unpredictability of the coronavirus put additional stress on many of us. Due to local and state restrictions, a number of Hoosiers were unable to take part in their normal religious activities that provides a sense of comfort and community.
Senate Bill 263 would address this by banning state and local government from imposing restrictions on religious organizations and religious services that are more restrictive than those imposed on other businesses and organizations deemed "essential services" during a disaster.
Under this bill, religious organizations could be subject to health, safety and occupancy requirements during a disaster emergency, but these requirements would have to withstand the "strict scrutiny" legal test that the Constitution requires.
SB 263 would add further protections to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States and Article 1, Sections 2 and 3 of the Indiana Constitution.
It's important to note that SB 263 does not mean religious organizations would be exempt from every regulation.
Even during a state of emergency, our fundamental freedom of religious expression must continue to be protected and guaranteed. Church and other religious organizations are often among the most essential services in a community, providing shelters, financial assistance, outreach, and more.
SB 263 is not intended to be critical of the tough decisions that the governor and local officials have to make during the COVID-19 pandemic. Government leaders have had to make health orders without clear guidance on how they could be applied to religious organizations. SB 263 would provide clarity going forward for any emergency regulations and rules on religious organizations.