The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, April 07, 2021 1:00 am

General Assembly

House OKs 2 virus bills

Cover local power, worship limits

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – House members Tuesday passed two bills that clamp down on state and local restrictions during disaster emergencies.

One would ban any regulation of worship services and another would make it harder to implement local rules that are more stringent than those at the state level.

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, said COVID-19 has taught Hoosiers the importance of the role of local health officers. But it also showed there is no check on their power.

“This takes unelected folks and puts them under the responsibility of elected officials,” he said of Senate Bill 5. It passed 65-28 and now goes back to the Senate, who must decide whether to accept the changes the House added.

Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, was the only local lawmaker to vote no. All area Republicans voted yes.

The legislation says any health orders or restrictions that are more stringent than the state must be approved by a local elected board. In most counties, that is the county commissioners.

Gov. Eric Holcomb ended statewide pandemic-related restrictions Tuesday. Any capacity restrictions, mask mandates and other limitations will now be handled by local officials.

The legislation also creates an appeal process for enforcement actions, such as a fine, business closure or even the health order itself.

County commissioners and city councils also would rule on those and have the ability to stay any local orders for weeks before a decision is made.

That troubled several legislators, including Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington. He said the bill inserts politics into health policy.

“This process is not going to really serve public health. It will easily devolve into a political debate about the philosophy of government and not focus on health,” Pierce said.

Lehman disagreed, saying, “I don't think there are too many local governments out there that aren't going to put safety first.”

The House also approved Senate Bill 263, which says no state or local entity can restrict the right of people to worship or to worship in person during a disaster emergency.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said it is an absolute prohibition.

Another part of the bill addresses other religious activities, such as a ministry day cares or church schools. It says they must be treated the same as an essential business and permits the state or local government to require a religious organization to comply with a neutral and generally applicable health, safety or occupancy requirement.

Early in the state lockdown, Holcomb did close churches, though they were exempted later from further restrictions.

A few Republicans voted against the bill because they believe religion is protected by the constitution and the bill is unnecessary.

“I don't believe we need to make a law to state what is embodied in the constitution,” said Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis.

The bill passed 74-20. The only local lawmakers to vote no were Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, and Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Goshen.

The bill also now goes back to the Senate, which must decide whether to accept the changes the House added.

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