Effort to block future pandemic closures at houses of worship fails in Va. Senate

An effort to block Virginia from imposing future health-related restrictions on houses of worship fell short in the state Senate, with Democrats joining together to vote against the legislation.

“We need to be able to respond to what our health care communities are telling us is necessary,” said Democratic Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, who represents Central Virginia.

“We are moving to dangerous ground if we take away the authority of our government to protect the health and safety of our communities in this regard.”

While the bill passed in the House of Delegates 51-46, it died in the Senate Committee on General Laws and Technology on Monday on a vote of 7-7, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

When the pandemic began in 2020, Virginia imposed restrictions that limited gatherings to no more than 10 people, leading to the shutdown of in-person religious services.

Republicans, including Sen. Richard Stuart who represents Stafford County, argued that churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship should never be impacted in that way again.

“We were allowed to go to the liquor store but we were forbidden from going to church,” Stuart said. “There’s a strong case to be made that we would have been a lot better off in church than we would have been in the liquor store.”

Under the legislation, religious services would be unaffected by emergency health regulations and would be allowed to operate as they would under normal circumstances.

Lawmakers heard testimony in favor of the bill from several pastors, including Ernest Custalow from Grace Church of Fredericksburg. Custalow said that in-person services were particularly important due to the uncertainty and fear that the pandemic caused.

“We deem it essential for the mental health and spiritual well-being of those involved,” Custalow said.

Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, said she had been personally affected by restrictions on religious gatherings.

“When I went to church and the doors were closed and I couldn’t get it, that was most upsetting,” Kiggans said. “That was my right and I feel like that was taken away from me.”

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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