Virginia Gov. Youngkin Signs Church Equal Protection Law
On Sunday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) signed legislation ensuring that places of worship receive equal treatment during state emergencies. The new law, HB 2171, prevents government officials from imposing restrictions on houses of worship that are more stringent than those placed on other businesses or organizations.
The bill was signed into law after receiving support from the Republican-controlled House of Delegates (53-43) and the Democrat-controlled Senate (35-5). The legislation’s passage comes as a response to the 2020 Covid outbreak when then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued an executive order temporarily banning public and private gatherings of 10 people or more, including at places of worship while allowing some businesses, like liquor stores, to operate as usual.
Violations of Northam’s order could have resulted in a state Class 1 misdemeanor, which carried a potential jail sentence of up to twelve months and a fine of up to $2,500.
Youngkin’s decision to sign HB 2171 into law aligns with his campaign promises against his predecessor’s lockdown policies. Upon taking office, Youngkin signed executive orders banning school mask mandates and COVID-19 vaccine requirements for state employees. Virginia has since enshrined the mask mandate ban into state law, allowing for optional masking among schoolchildren.
The newly-signed law, which takes effect on July 1, has garnered support from organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). ADF Legal Counsel Greg Chafuen praised the bill, stating that the First Amendment prohibits the government from treating religious institutions worse than other establishments during times of crisis. Chafuen and the ADF commend Governor Youngkin and the Virginia General Assembly for defending religious freedom in the state.
While the bill’s original version, sponsored by state Del. Wren Williams (R), would have entirely exempted places of worship from emergency power rules, the final version ensures that houses of worship receive at least the same level of leniency as other vital businesses. State Sen. Chap Petersen (D) supported the bill, arguing that religious services are essential to a community and deserve First Amendment protection.
Youngkin, a devout Christian, has been a vocal critic of COVID-19 restrictions, which had forced places of worship to close. At the same time, other businesses were allowed to reopen. This disparity sparked anger among some social conservatives, leading to lawsuits challenging the restrictions on religious freedom grounds.
Some Democrats, like state Sen. Jennifer Boysko (D), argued against the new law, stating that the pandemic rules were based on data showing higher virus transmission rates in large indoor gatherings lasting more than 20 minutes. Despite the disagreement, the amended version of the bill passed both the Senate and House, ultimately resulting in Youngkin’s signing of the legislation. This new law demonstrates a commitment to upholding religious freedom and ensuring equal treatment for places of worship in Virginia.