The ACLJ Helped the Oklahoma Legislature Draft the Religious Freedom Act, Declaring That Churches Are “Essential” – It Just Passed the State Senate
During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, questions swirled about what was “essential” and what wasn’t. At the ACLJ, we firmly believe that churches and worship services are essential, and we have fought to safeguard those constitutionally protected rights and institutions.
Shockingly, we learned that certain states and municipalities exploited the pandemic to target churches, using the pandemic as an excuse to mistreat these sacred institutions. The pandemic has been terrible on many levels; for families who have lost loved ones, and for many small businesses which have been crippled. Government efforts to cripple churches and crack down on worship made a terrible situation even worse. The current – and future – implications of this kind of abuse are terrifying.
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board opinion piece from March 11, 2021, published about a year after lockdowns began, states how tough the lockdowns were for the economy and for individual liberties. It goes on to say the following:
The Covid pandemic has seen the greatest loss of American liberty outside wartime. Politicians closed houses of worship without regard for the First Amendment. They ordered arbitrary shutdowns that favored some businesses but punished others. Politicians and governments have used the pandemic to justify an enormous expansion of state power. Government had to act in March to avoid economic catastrophe from the lockdowns it ordered. But the politicians keep amassing power even as vaccines are rolling out.
Due to all of the ongoing issues our society is facing, churches were and are as important as ever. However, many governments were and are unfairly targeting churches. At the ACLJ, we fought this abuse at every level, including in court. We filed a lawsuit against California’s unjust singing ban, imposed under the guise of combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. This case is a crystal clear example of why state legislation protecting churches and worship is needed. We also recently filed an amicus brief at the Supreme Court of the United States in a case out of Illinois – another case in which state officials imposed discriminatory restrictions on religious worship in the name of protecting against the Coronavirus.
In one state in particular though, Oklahoma, we learned of a positive development. State Senator David Bullard decided that enough was enough and took the lead in authoring SB 368, also known as the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act. He reached out to the ACLJ for assistance, and our legal team helped him draft a bill to make it as effective and legally sound as possible. Together, we took immediate action.
The bill seeks to prohibit any governmental entity from declaring a religious institution and any activity related to the institution’s mission and purpose to be nonessential. It also prohibits the closure of such institutions for health or security purposes if the actions are greater than what is imposed on any private entity facing similar health conditions. Essentially, we argue that churches should not be held to a different and unfair standard than that of other essential businesses.
As Senator Bullard explained:
“Held within the fundamental principle of freedom is this: you must first be free in your conscience, in order to be a truly free people. One thing that has become the great magnifier of freedom is how it is cared for in a crisis. Temporary restraints on liberty are often more permanent than we may realize in the moment. For a government to tell people that their conscience rights are not essential is to eliminate the First Amendment altogether. We must hold these truths to be evident that all conscience rights are equal, and we are endowed by our Creator with inseparable rights to faith, freedom, and to be essential in all of these. With the help of the ACLJ we are successfully making the freedom of conscience to be essential and equal.”
It should go without saying, but churches are of utmost importance for a society that is flourishing. They are key components of the moral and social fabric of a nation. Churches are also protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and also in existing federal statutes through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and various state statutory iterations of RFRA.
In fact, the U.S. Constitution itself guarantees that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The United States Constitution makes it clear: The government does not have the power to establish a religion or to prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Senator Bullard argues that these freedoms must be protected at all costs and goes on to say that we cannot allow “governments to render our faith and freedom as nonessential.” We agree.
We are pleased to announce that Senator Bullard’s bill has just passed overwhelmingly in favor of religious freedom in the Oklahoma State Senate, by a vote of 37-9.
Representative Jon Echols, the Oklahoma State House Majority Floor Leader, had this to say following the bill’s passage in the Senate:
“Senator Bullard’s Religious Freedom Act is critical, especially in light of the new types of uncertainties we’ve learned can present very real threats to the religious liberties of Oklahomans and all Americans. I look forward to getting this passed on the House side. I also hope this great bill, soon to become law, will serve as an example to other States. The ACLJ’s guidance and assistance with the Religious Freedom Act was crucial. I’m grateful to the ACLJ, for what it stands for and what it actually does – putting words into actions – to protect Americans’ religious liberties.”
We appreciate the hard work of State Senator Bullard and Representative Echols, and their colleagues, in making this happen. And we are proud to be a part of important legislation that protects our freedoms at their very core. We have worked with Senator Bullard and Representative Echols before: Just last year, we helped them with a bill that allowed families in Oklahoma to file wrongful death lawsuits against abortionists for coerced abortions. That bill has been signed into law. As Rep. Echols put it then, “Without the support of the ACLJ, [the Unborn Person Wrongful Death Act] would not have become law. Their team worked diligently with both myself and other legislators to make sure we were able to pass this law to protect Oklahoma’s unborn.”
Our work matters. And so does your support. Our efforts are not in vain, but we can’t do this without you.
This is all just a small part of why the work we do at the ACLJ is so important, now more than ever. Thank you for your prayers and continued support as we work tirelessly to defend our rights and freedoms.
UPDATE 04.21.2021: The ACLJ is pleased to announce that, today, the Oklahoma Religious Freedom Act passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives by an overwhelming vote. The Governor has indicated he will sign the bill into law. We will update you when that happens. Thank you for your continued support allowing the ACLJ to help states like Oklahoma draft and pass these critical bills and protect religious liberty.