Oklahoma House Republicans passed a bill on Wednesday to prohibit any government entity from closing churches during an emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic.
House Bill 2648 would deem such orders a "substantial burden" on religion, an attempt to render them unconstitutional. Courts have tied the term to forcing someone to violate their religious beliefs. The bill says that finding would apply even if an order applies to non-religious establishments.
Rep. Andy Fugate (D-Del City) said not being able to meet in-person during a pandemic doesn't constitute a substantial burden.
"This is a reaction to a poor judgment of a governor who chose to close churches and keep liquor stores open. The fix for that, my friends is not changing statute. It’s changing a governor," Fugate said.
Several Republican lawmakers took issue with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s emergency order issued in late March 2020 that banned gatherings of more than 10 people. The order effectively shut down churches but let many businesses, including liquor stores, stay open.
Some Republican lawmakers indicated in their floor remarks people should choose faith above all, even during a pandemic.
"If it wasn’t for Jesus Christ obeying the Father and saying, 'Well, I’ll follow you and I’ll be with you and I’m on your team as long as it doesn’t risk my health, but if it does, I’m out of here,' where would we be as the Christian followers across the Christian followers across the state of Oklahoma and this nation and across the world?" said Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 7,000 Oklahomans have died from COVID-19. Many of the first to die were active in a church.
Out of 82 Republicans in the House, 80 voted for HB2648. Reps. Carol Bush and Preston Stinson did not vote. Among Democrats, 18 of 19 voted against the bill. Rep. Denise Brewer did not vote.