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 several 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 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 is 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 conference committee to iron out the differences.

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