PHOENIX (LifeSiteNews) – Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law two bills that strengthen religious liberty protections in the Grand Canyon State, including by ensuring that churches can stay open in emergencies and allowing clergy to visit residents in health care facilities.
Ducey on Monday approved HB 2507, a sweeping religious freedom bill that outlaws “discriminatory” government action against churches and other faith-based institutions due to religion, religious expression, or for seeking to operate in a state of emergency, such as a pandemic.
The law declares religious services “essential,” adding that the state must allow religious organizations to operate during emergencies “to the same or greater extent as other organizations or businesses that provide essential services and that are necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public.”
Faith-based entities may still be required “to comply with neutral health, safety, or occupancy requirements” that also apply to secular institutions deemed essential.
But the state cannot enforce any health, safety, or occupancy rule that “imposes a substantial burden on a religious service” without showing that the measure is “essential to further a compelling government interest” and is the least restrictive means of doing so.
The text of the law emphasizes that it “shall be construed in favor of a broad protection of the free exercise of religion,” though it doesn’t apply in cases based on criminal conduct. Religious organizations can sue for damages and legal fees over violations of the law.
State and local governments across the country have been taken to court throughout the COVID crisis for targeting faith-based groups with disproportionate pandemic orders. The Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down state-level COVID restrictions imposed on religious services as unconstitutional.
“It’s amazing that we could be denied gathering, or possibly denied gathering, at churches and yet have stadiums and malls open, box stores open,’’ said Arizona Rep. Lupe Diaz, a Christian pastor, according to tuscon.com. “It is an essential service.’’
Gov. Ducey exempted religious gatherings from COVID-related capacity limits, but future state leaders may not be as friendly to constitutional religious liberties, noted Arizona Rep. Ben Toma.
“During the pandemic, while Arizona was blessed with government leaders that respected religious freedom and the essential role of religious organizations to the people, that wasn’t the situation in some neighboring states,” said Toma, who sponsored HB 2507. “This law ensures that religious freedom and services in Arizona will continue to be protected in the future, regardless of any emergency, or who leads the state.”
Other states have recently enacted similar measures. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday signed nearly identical legislation that prohibits unequally strict health and safety rules for religious institutions.
Greg Chafuen, legal counsel with the conservative law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said in a statement that the South Carolina law “takes the modest step of ensuring that officials cannot use a public crisis to discriminate against religious operations in violation of the Constitution.”
“While public officials have the authority and responsibility to protect public health and safety, the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating houses of worship and religious organizations worse than shopping centers, restaurants, or gyms,” Chaufen said.
Protecting clergy visits for vulnerable residents
HB 2449, another bill signed by Gov. Ducey on Monday, mandates that health care facilities in Arizona must let clergy members visit residents who ask for in-person visits for religious purposes, including during emergencies. Under the law, a legal representative can request a visit for a cognitively impaired resident.
“When a resident’s death is imminent, a health care institution must allow a clergy member to visit the resident in person for religious purposes” if asked for by a resident or legal representative, HB 2449 explicitly states.
Health care facilities can require that clergy comply with health regulations for a “compelling interest,” so long as the rules place the “least restrictive burden” on their religious exercise.
HB 2449 extends protections enacted last year for hospital patients in Arizona, according to ADF. As with HB 2507, people can bring civil action over alleged violations of the law.
“Over the past two years, too many people were denied visits from clergy, even in end-of-life situations,” Chafuen said. “HB 2449 ensures that this does not happen in long-term care facilities like nursing homes by allowing residents to receive visits from clergy. Residents in vulnerable situations deserve to have their religious freedom protected.”
The Catholic bishops of Arizona thanked Ducey for signing HB 2449, highlighting the importance of the presence of clergy at the end of life for both patients and their relatives.
The Republican governor this week also approved legislation that bans government agencies from mandating COVID shots and prevents schools from requiring masks for minors students without parental consent.