For Missouri churches, it could be a case of “the camel’s nose entering the tent.” After all, if the camel gets its nose inside a tent, it will be impossible to prevent the rest of it from entering. This Arab proverb is a metaphor for a small, seemingly innocuous act or decision that will lead to much larger, more serious, and less desirable consequences down the line.
The “camel’s nose” is Senate Bill 51. It began as a much-needed and generally regarded non-controversial piece of legislation that would provide protection from frivolous, COVID-related liability for hospitals and businesses, especially smaller, family-owned establishments. Unfortunately, it has turned into a dangerous, convoluted monstrosity that threatens our First Amendment rights and leaves churches and small businesses vulnerable to COVID liability.
The Missouri Senate, fueled in part by pressure from the Association of Trial Lawyers, fought to have churches held liable if it could be proven a person got COVID at the church. Who thinks up such nonsense? What on earth would the state pass next? Legislation allowing people to sue because they caught the flu or simply the sniffles?
Thank heavens we had enough courageous senators who fought this travesty. Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, offered an amendment removing churches from this horrid legislation. But Senate leadership and the trial lawyer lobby would not support it, leading to a filibuster and hours of intense negotiations.
At approximately 5:30 a.m., on Feb. 3, Moon’s amendment, exempting churches from COVID liability, passed. But then, inexplicably, Republican Senate leadership withdrew the amended bill and substituted it with another that watered-down the exemption for churches. The revised version barely passed, on a 16-14 vote.
Four Republicans, including Senate President pro tem Dave Schatz of Sullivan and floor leader Caleb Rowden of Columbia voted with 10 Democrats against the church. Two other Republican Senators, Lincoln Hough of Springfield and Bill White of Joplin, also voted with the Democrats.
The watered-down version does not exempt a church from being held liable if intentionality can be proven. Evidently some trial lawyers think there is a way to sue churches and faith-based organizations, else it would not have been included. There is concern that much of Senate Bill 51’s language is too vague and could actually lead to a proliferation of lawsuits – the very thing it was originally supposed to protect Missourians from experiencing.
“The proponents of Senate Bill 51 would have us believe that we must offer statutory protection to churches and businesses while leaving the door open to lawsuits,” Moon said. “Remember, it will be extremely difficult to prove the virus was contracted in a given location and time. And, if a suit is filed, the church or business will be required to respond to the suit.” That will cost a church money.
State government, through Senate Bill 51, is literally targeting Missouri churches. What was supposed to be protection from frivolous actions has turned into an attack on churches and faith-based organizations. Passage of such a diabolical piece of legislation will send insurance premiums skyrocketing for The Baptist Home, the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home and our universities (which are supplying a growing number of nurses to help fight the pandemic). I have been told insurance premiums for The Baptist Home could jump more than $1 million annually if Senate Bill 51 passes.
At one point during debate over the amendment, it was demanded that churches erect signs warning people about catching COVID. But the state has no authority to dictate any message of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church takes its messaging orders from God alone. A church may volunteer to do so, but the state cannot force it, according to the free exercise clauses in the United States and Missouri Constitutions. God wants us to be good citizens and obey the laws – unless they contradict His laws. Missouri churches have done everything Gov. Mike Parson has asked during the COVID pandemic. Indeed, churches, like many small businesses, have suffered, and this bill does nothing to ease the burden.
If trial lawyers can target a church for this, what is next? I am stunned the church is even part of the conversation over COVID liability. This was supposed to be a law to protect Missouri businesses from frivolous COVID lawsuits, one that would provide certainty. But it is producing uncertainty, evolving into a reckless attack on the First Amendment rights of Missourians.
Senate Bill 51 has one more vote in order the pass the Senate. It is expected – unbelievably – to pass. It will then head to the Missouri House of Representatives where the process will start anew. Expect another tough, tense fight in the House. This is the kind of vote Missourians must remember in 2022 and 2024.