The Bulletin

Virginia lawmakers approve bill limiting emergency restrictions on houses of worship

By: - February 23, 2023 3:08 pm

Rising Sun Baptist Church in Louisa, Virginia. (Samantha Willis / Virginia Mercury)

Legislation heading to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk would prevent future Virginia governors from issuing any emergency orders that would shut down church services and other religious gatherings while leaving businesses and other secular facilities open, a proposal that grew out of frustration with COVID-19 shutdown orders.

As originally drafted and approved by the GOP-led House of Delegates, the Republican-sponsored bill would have exempted houses of worship entirely from any rules issued under emergency powers. 

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, the bill’s sponsor, scaled the proposal down when it got to the Democratic-controlled state Senate. The narrower version, he told senators, would put houses of worship at the “least restrictive level” of any shutdown orders.

“This would bar the governor from taking more heavy-handed restrictions to places of worship than other vital businesses,” Williams said.

The bill passed the Senate this week 35-5. As it advanced, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said he saw it as a straightforward recognition of the special First Amendment protections for religious services.

“At a minimum, we can certainly say they’re essential to a community,” Petersen said at a committee hearing earlier this month.

The legislation is expected to win approval from Youngkin, an avowed Christian who has criticized COVID-19 restrictions.

Because Virginia, like many other states, enacted restrictions on large gatherings, places of worship remained closed even as other businesses were allowed to open, angering some social conservatives. Some groups filed lawsuits challenging the COVID-19 rules on religious freedom grounds, but that litigation was largely unsuccessful.

“During COVID, you could go to a state store and buy liquor,” said Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg. “But you could not go to church. This bill means the governor’s not gonna open liquor stores and close churches.”

Some Democrats pushed back on Peake’s argument, saying the pandemic rules were based on data showing more virus transmission when large groups gather indoors for a prolonged period of time.

“The ability to transfer and get someone else sick was much higher if you stayed for more than 20 minutes,” said Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. “I don’t think you can compare the two.”

The amended version of the bill was also approved by the House Thursday. That vote was 53-43.

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.