Changes made Thursday to a House bill would give the legislature more power to weigh in on emergency declarations made by a governor.
The bill arose out of frustrations from some lawmakers about Gov. Eric Holcomb’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Rep. Matt Lehman (R-Berne) said his bill would allow the legislature to call itself into emergency session after the governor issues an emergency declaration.
“It can only deal with bills relating to the agenda, which in essence is saying only to those emergency issues that are there,” Lehman said.
Throughout the pandemic, Holcomb has encouraged local health departments to issue orders stricter than his, if they think it’s necessary. But Lehman’s bill would prevent that. Instead, only local legislative bodies – county commissioners or city councils – could issue such orders.
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Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington) worries about that change.
“I just hate to see us do something that’s going to inject a lot of political angst into scientific-based decisions,” Pierce said.
The bill, now headed to the House floor, also says state and local governments couldn’t restrict religious services at all during public emergencies – like Holcomb did during the pandemic.
Holcomb’s COVID-19 restrictions limited the size of gatherings for a lot of places, including churches. He also required social distancing and mask-wearing, including at houses of worship.
Lehman’s bill would no longer allow any of that for religious institutions. He said it’s about protecting people’s religious liberty, guaranteed in the Constitution.
Pierce wondered if the measure clamps down too much.
“If a super spreader event is a super spreader event – whether it’s in a church, in an athletic event or a bunch of people at Walmart – why would we want to preclude the ability to prevent the disease from spreading?” Pierce said.
A similar Senate bill would prevent emergency orders against churches, but only if they’re more restrictive than those against other gatherings or businesses.