Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed legislation on Sunday that prohibits government officials from imposing discriminatory restrictions on places of worship during state emergencies.
HB 2171 stipulates that “No rule, regulation, or order issued by the Governor or other governmental entity pursuant to this chapter shall impose restrictions on the operation of a place of worship that are more restrictive than the restrictions imposed on any other business, organization, or activity.” The measure previously passed the Republican-controlled House of Delegates (53-43) and Democrat-controlled Senate (35-5) last month.
Following the March 2020 Covid outbreak, then-Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam issued an executive order on March 24 temporarily banning public and private gatherings of 10 people or more, including at places of worship. The order furthermore mandated the closure of businesses and venues deemed “non-essential,” such as restaurants, gyms, and hair salons, among others.
At the same time places of worship were deemed “non-essential,” businesses such as liquor stores were classified as “essential” and allowed to operate under normal hours. In a statement provided to a local news outlet at the time, a Northam spokeswoman attempted to justify the latter policy by claiming that “[c]losing liquor stores would not necessarily reduce demand, but could drive consumers to travel further over state lines and/or encourage unregulated markets.”
Venues found in violation of Northam’s order faced the possibility of being charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor, which in Virginia, is punishable with “confinement in jail for not more than twelve months and a fine of not more than $2,500, either or both.”
“When Ralph Northam allowed liquor stores … to remain open but kept churches closed, Governor Youngkin recognized that he did not share his values,” Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter told The Federalist. “He was proud to sign HB 2171, which protects Virginians against government overreach and ensures the Commonwealth remains open.”
Throughout the 2021 gubernatorial race, Youngkin campaigned against his predecessor’s Covid lockdown policies. Upon taking office, the Virginia Republican signed executive orders banning school mask mandates and Covid shot requirements for state employees. The former was further enshrined into state law last year after the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill allowing for optional masking among schoolchildren.
HB 2171 is set to take effect on July 1.