Bill would block governments from forcing emergency church closures in Utah

Sponsor says legislation protects Utahns’ First Amendment rights.

A newly proposed bill would block governments from having the authority to close churches or other houses of worship during an emergency. The legislation also prevents actions that would stop patients in health care facilities from receiving visits from spiritual advisers or family members.

It’s simply a First Amendment issue, says Rep. Cory Maloy, R-Lehi.

“To force a church to shut its doors and not let people come to worship and exercise the rights they have is not acceptable,” he said. “Most churches took it upon themselves to be very responsible.”

After Gov. Gary Herbert’s declaration of a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic last March, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced its April General Conference would be held without a congregation. Shortly thereafter the LDS Church announced all gatherings would be suspended worldwide.

Summit County was the first to order the closure of houses of worship on March 15. In May, the state said churches could begin holding in-person services again as long as they maintained proper social distancing.

Maloy says the government can implement guidelines for churches under HB184, “but what we’re saying is they can’t shut them down.”

Another part of Maloy’s bill says people in long-term care or health care facilities can receive visits from a religious figure or a single member of their family during an emergency, something that was stopped during the state of emergency.

“We’ve all seen stories where seniors, especially, have been essentially locked in their rooms,” Maloy says, “and they’re not permitted to see family members or receive spiritual rites.”

Nursing homes and other similar facilities in Utah banned visitors when the pandemic struck in March, hoping to limit community spread of the virus.

“There’s plenty of precautions we can take,” Maloy said,”to allow those visits to happen.”