Lawmaker: Strengthen religious freedom during emergencies

Springing from what he believed were confusing and vague orders from Governor Tom Wolf on whether churches could meet for corporate worship during the shutdown and reopening of the state, Rep. Clive Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter) sponsored a bill to clarify religious freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.

“Basically what we’re saying is in the beginning phases of this, our churches knew that it was the right thing to do and definitely complied with the governor’s request,” Owlett said when contacted about the bill.

“As we’ve been going from the color red light green light process, it’s gotten a little more vague and confusing. So our goal through this process is to make it inherently clear even in the midst of an emergency declaration that churches have the ability and the right to assemble per the constitution, so that’s what we’re building for here,” he said.

Owlett cited the confusion surrounding the number of people permitted to meet safely in a building according to the governor’s plan.

“They really wanted to put a number on what they felt would be safe, not taking into account the size of the buildings.

He said that he had shared in the House State Government Committee meeting recently that if there was a 150 by 150 foot building house of worship, according to the governor’s guidelines that would be equal to 900 square foot per person.

“The meeting room that we were in was 1,700 square feet so we would be able to have just under tow people in that building per the governor’s thoughts,” Owlett said.

“So, our goal is to look at this, in a different way than just throwing an arbitrary number out there,” he added.

Owlett contended that churches are able to do a good job on their own in making sure that people are kept safe.

When asked what happens if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, as has been suggested, Owlett said, “The governor should do everything that he can to convey the risk and our constitutional rights did not go away in COVID-19 and they won’t go away in COVID-21 or COVID-30,” he said.

“In our Religious Freedom Protection Act it is very clear and all we’re trying to say is that in the midst of an emergency declaration, nothing has changed,” Owlett stated.

Owlett said they had tried to work with the governor on this, but as other agencies got involved, “the conversation went south.”

“We told him, unless we told him that unless we start using our heads and using some common sense, we’re going to have to work through legislation. That’s what this bill is designed to do,” he said.

Owlett, said that the bill passed out of the committee with bipartisan support with two Democrats voting in favor of the bill.

“It’s pretty much a no-brainer bill. I mean people should be able to realize that we do have our religious freedoms and nothing’s changed there,” he added.


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