By Terri Jo Neff |
A new law will take effect in Arizona this summer to prevent state officials from shutting down churches or religious services during a public health or public safety emergency.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed House Bill 2507 on Monday, defining a religious service as an essential service during a declared state of emergency. The legislation also protects the fundamental right of Arizonans to exercise their religion freely during a time of crisis and further protects a religious organization from discrimination when it operates or seeks to operate during a state of emergency.
HB2507, which was sponsored by House Republican Majority Leader Ben Toma, notes the U.S. Constriction expressly protects the free exercise of religion, including the right to hold beliefs inwardly and secretly as well as the right “to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly.”
Toma, who received bipartisan support for HB2507 in the House, said he introduced the bill to ensure Arizonans’ religious freedoms are forever protected.
“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,” Toma said. “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.”
Rep. Lupe Diaz, himself a pastor, said religion is an essential service and religious freedom is essential, which was especially true during the pandemic when Arizonans were facing so many challenges.
“As we look at being able to exercise our religious liberties, which is a constitutional right, it is amazing that we can be denied gathering at churches, yet have stadiums, malls and box stores open,” Diaz said last week in explaining his vote for HB2507.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, also applauded the signing of HB2507 into law. She noted that while public officials have the authority to protect health and public safety, they cannot suspend the First Amendment, including the free exercise of religion.
“By signing HB 2507 the Governor acknowledges the fact that religious organizations provide essential services that are vital to the health and welfare of the public,” Herrod said Monday. “They not only meet the spiritual needs of our communities, but they also support social services, health care, and economic activity.”