Indiana House OKs bills to give local officials, churches more say over public health restrictions

The Indiana House on Tuesday approved two bills giving local and county government officials more say over restrictions imposed during health emergencies and protecting churches from state or local orders more restrictive than those imposed on other essential businesses.

Both measures were spurred by restrictions imposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Debate was passionate over Senate Bill 5, concerning public health emergencies, and Senate Bill 263, regarding religious services, as lawmakers wrestled with determining who should have the ultimate authority during public health emergencies. SB 5 passed by a 65-28 vote, and SB 263 was approved by a 73-20 margin.

The pandemic, said Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, sponsor of SB 5, revealed the important role of local health administrators, but he said this bill would rightly put them under the responsibility of local elected officials who are closer to the public during health emergencies.

Under the bill, a local governing body, including county commissioners or city councils, would be allowed to approve or reject restrictions called for by local health departments, if those restrictions were more stringent than the governor’s. The bill also added language that would allow local governments to have less stringent restrictions, if the governor’s order allowed it.

Holcomb has repeatedly allowed local governments to impose more restrictive measures during the pandemic. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and the Marion County Health Department have continuously done so, as have some other counties.

But SB 5 would give the Indianapolis City-County Council the ultimate authority over  restrictions called for by the health department or the mayor if those restrictions are more stringent than the governor’s orders.

The bill also would allow businesses and individuals to appeal any “enforcement action” taken by local health departments during emergencies. The local legislative body would then have to decide whether or not to hear the appeal and rule on it within 15 days. During that time, the restrictions can be placed on hold.

Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said he believes giving this power to local government and allowing bodies more than two weeks to decide on the appeal are bad ideas and could put the public’s health in even more jeopardy.

“If they wait two weeks and then decide for the health department, you have two weeks of the spread of transmission,” Pierce said. “This process is not going to serve public health. We’re going to be throwing the commissioners into the boiling cauldron.”

He predicted that some people would raise objections not based on scientific information and that commissioners would be faced with strong public pressure to loosen the restrictions or face political harm.

But Lehman said he is confident the county commissioners will have public safety at top of mind when making these decisions. “I think they’ll create a high bar. I don’t think there are too many local entities that won’t put safety first.”

Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, pointed out that during the NCAA basketball tournament at various locations in Indiana, all of the venues had to do risk mitigation plans and enforce their stipulations. But she said the language in the bill would allow people, such as ticket holders and vendors, to file complaint after complaint and stop the enforcement.

“The last thing we want to do it to tie the hands of our local health officials,” Austin said.

Another provision of the bill says the appointment of a county health officer is subject to the approval of the county legislative body and adds “good cause” to the reasons why a local health officer may be removed in counties other than Marion County.

Debate over SB 263 focused on some lawmakers’ support of religious freedom versus other representatives’ primary concern over public health. Two Republicans lawmakers also stressed the need to let the state constitution take precedent over this issue, rather than a law.

The bill would prohibit state and local orders from restricting anyone’s ability to worship during disaster emergencies and prohibits these orders from being more restrictive on churches than on any other businesses considered essential services.

Churches would be allowed to hold services without any restrictions, such as capacity size or mask mandates, under the bill. But if the church operated a daycare, for example, and private daycares were subject to restrictions, those would still apply to the church’s daycare.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, bill sponsor, said, “All we’re saying here is services provided by the church are deemed to be essential services.”

While he said the bill pertains to traditional church services, he also said it would apply to Sunday school classes, funerals and weddings conducted in churches.

Rep, Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, said the bill does the opposite of protecting people during an emergency.

“What we’re telling him, is no matter what the condition is, you cannot act as a state official to protect people,” DeLaney said. “I’m glad he protected us, and all this does is limit his ability to do so the next time.”

Rep. John Jacob, R-Indianapolis, said the action is not necessary. “We already have the U.S. Constitution. I do not think we have to make a law for what is already embodied in the Constitution.”

Steuerwald stressed churches can still take actions to protect members, if this bill becomes law. “What we’re talking about is the government’s restrictions on religious services, but churches can make their own restrictions. They are not limited in any way.”

Both public health bills were passed by the Senate in different forms than in the House. The Senate now has the option to agree to the changes or send the measures to conferences committee to iron out the differences.

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19 thoughts on “Indiana House OKs bills to give local officials, churches more say over public health restrictions

  1. The Republican legislators should be issuing resolutions praising the state and local health officials for their efforts to keep Hoosiers safe, not taking away their authority to save our lives. I would like to see what passage in the Bible gives elected officials the authority to ignore what is best for the health of the residents of an IN city, county, or town and subject them to the prospect of illness or death. I am not just talking about the people who attend the church service. Because of their potential infection, they might infect their parents and grandparents, neighbors, friends, essential workers, etc.

    1. I don’t even know what to say to your comment! Really?! Do more research!!!!!

    2. I don’t understand why legislators think they are more qualified than clinicians using evidence-based research to determine what’s best for public health. The last time I checked, around half of the elected officials in Indiana didn’t have a college degree. It’s no wonder why Indiana struggles with the brain-drain.

  2. Agree totally with the two posted comments. Governor Holcomb looked at the entire state and proceeded to do what was right and was good for the entire state. This piecemeal that legislators are attempting is just plain wrong. Seriously, what are they thinking? The Governor did quite well during this pandemic. Do something productive instead of destruction! By the way I don’t agree with the Governor on releasing the mask mandate. But I do want him to have the authority to reinstate should the need appear with the possibility of new virus variances coming.

    1. Removing the mask mandate doesn’t mean that you have to stop wearing your mask. It merely means we the people get to make that decision. Unless you live in city with a dictator as a mayor. Freedom to choose is a Constitutional right. Dust of a copy of that document and re-learn your rights!

    2. Freedom to chose what you do, as long as it does not effect others. There has always been the idea that society makes some sacrifices for the greater good. When your freedom to spread disease harms other people, that is not freedom. That is just being self centered and narcissistic.

      This is from Wikipedia about the golden rule: The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in most religions and cultures.[1] It can be considered an ethic of reciprocity in some religions, although different religions treat it differently.

    3. Those that believe the constitution allows for absolute freedom should read up a bit more and stop taking advice from MSNBC, Breitbart, Faux, CNN, etc. Sounds a lot like the “experts” in Washington that claim we can’t go around changing parts of the Constitution we don’t like! Interesting enough, those are some of the same that clench to the 2nd and believe Facebook and Twitter can violate the 1st. Then again, we had a president that felt SCOTUS had standing to hear state claims of alleged election fraud and now have a president that’s signing EO’s faster than the last two.

      I’ll end again with this…Conservative and Liberal justices alike have ruled time and time again that constitutional liberty is not absolute. There are public policy considerations that require a need to temper individual rights, though I would be hard pressed to say COVID falls into that category. I guess that’s what we all get for believing our pollical side is correct and the other is wrong – anyone watch WWF back in the day? That’s how I picture congress – put on a show, then have fun together behind closed doors laughing at all those that believe what you do is real. Personally, I say lift the bans and let the poor folks working retail and food service deal with the asshats that refuse to have a stroke of common sense! Why not – they’ll soon enough make $15 an hour and that surely justifies our treating them poorly.

  3. Removing the mask mandate doesn’t mean that you have to stop wearing your mask. It merely means we the people get to make that decision. Unless you live in city with a dictator as a mayor. Freedom to choose is a Constitutional right. Dust of a copy of that document and re-learn your rights!

    1. You don’t have a right to endanger the health of others. ie the reason you can’t smoke in public buildings.

    2. You don’t understand the Constitution. It’s established constitutional precedent that the government can require vaccinations if they so desire in the interests of public health. A mask is a much lower ask of the general public.

      Also a tip – if you’re on the same side of an issue – any issue – as John Jacob, you’re almost certainly in the wrong.

      The response of religious folks to the coronavirus pandemic has done just about as much to drive people away from the church as their enthusiastic embrace of Donald Trump. 45% of evangelicals have already said they’re not getting the vaccine. I have a feeling churches are going to be the vectors of coronavirus mutation and spread throughout this summer, and why the virus doesn’t die out. I had looked forward to returning to church after my vaccination kicks in, but now I doubt my kids will be safe.

      Next time you hear churches complaining that their pews are emptying out, remind them to look in the mirror. It’s one thing to stand for something, but it’s another to take actions that show them to be blatant hypocrites. How’s a pro-life church supposed to square that with actions that endanger the health of their members, visitors, and the general public?

    3. Freedom to chose what you do, as long as it does not effect others. There has always been the idea that society makes some sacrifices for the greater good. When your freedom to spread disease harms other people, that is not freedom. That is just being self centered and narcissistic.

      This is from Wikipedia about the golden rule: The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one wants to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in most religions and cultures.[1] It can be considered an ethic of reciprocity in some religions, although different religions treat it differently.

  4. Do Churches employee health officials that can make these decisions? What is a Church different than a business, school, airport, etc. What a waste of time and backwards thinking.

  5. Separation of church and state. Perhaps we are electing the wrong people to the legislature. We need health officials to do health and let churches tend to heavenly matters. They are even less informed health advisors than the legislature evidently is.

  6. A good friend of mine just lost his Dad to Covid because his elderly Dad insisted on going to a church where they didn’t believe in masks or social distancing or anything like that. His Mom, who was very ill but survived, has a different attitude now.

    1. Sorry to hear about your friends dad. Sadly, people are shrugging their shoulders and saying, its only 1%. People don’t understand. We are so close.

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