I recently told a Missouri lawmaker, who advocated that LGBTQ rights take priority over freedom of conscience, that under no circumstances would Missouri Southern Baptists allow their First Amendment rights to be replaced with flimsy statutory “protection” by state law. The response: crickets. Ever cordial, I shook his hand as I departed. Negotiations ended. Only God – not the state – is Lord of the conscience.
The free exercise of religion clause (freedom of conscience) in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is under attack from multiple directions. The LGBTQ lobby is just one. Another has arisen from county and city government officials using the pandemic as an excuse to intimidate churches and in some states, force closures. For the most part in Missouri, the decision to remain open has remained with the churches due to the leadership of Gov. Mike Parson.
There have been a few attempts by local authorities, citing health concerns due to COVID-19, to force churches to limit attendance while not imposing the same restrictions for bars, strip clubs and businesses. In March 2020, one such incident occurred in the Kansas City suburb of Jackson County. Local officials, citing the county health department, said churches were limited to no more than 10 people while allowing businesses to have more. Abundant Life Baptist Church in Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit attracts thousands of people to its services. Recognizing that the county was violating the church’s First Amendment right, the church sued. Last year the Jackson County Legislature threw in the towel, approving a $146,750 settlement with the church. That sent shock waves through every county courthouse in Missouri – and rightly so.
The settlement was likely triggered by U.S. Supreme Court rulings blocking New York and California from imposing strict limits on attendance at religious services to combat COVID-19. In November 2020, the court set aside attendance limits of no more than 10 people that Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo imposed on churches in areas most severely affected by the coronavirus. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization, alleged that the limits violated their First Amendment rights of religious exercise.
The court found it troubling that businesses the state considered essential weren’t subject to the same occupancy limits. Those included “things such as acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities,” the court said.
“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the opinion said. But New York’s restrictions “strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.” The court issued a similar ruling after churches in California sued over the same restrictions.
A bill addressing attacks on the religious freedom of Missourians is moving through the House of Representatives. House members have approved House Bill 1713, the Missouri Religious Freedom Protection Act, which is in part a response to the closures of places of worship that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill is sponsored by State Rep. Alex Riley, R-Springfield. He said the bill ensures that “government entities in this state cannot close our places of worship. There are a few limited exceptions in the bill but the idea here is to make sure some of the things we saw take place over the past couple years across the country never take place again in our state.”
Under the bill, no public official could issue an order that has the effect of limiting or prohibiting a religious group or place of worship from holding religious services or meetings. The prohibition would not apply to emergency evacuation orders involving imminent danger from flooding, fires, tornadoes, earthquakes, terrorist threats, civil unrest or hazardous materials incidents. Once the imminent danger has passed, religious services would be allowed to resume.
Riley noted that places of worship meet not only the spiritual needs of the population but also provide help to those in need in the form of food and shelter and other critical services. Missouri Baptist Convention Disaster Relief is one of Missouri’s largest disaster response organizations. Research also shows that people who were able to attend religious services during the pandemic saw their mental health improve.
“Our places of worship operate in a very unique space in this state. We in government should not close them down and that’s what this bill does,” Riley said.
The bill requires another vote in the House before moving to the Senate.