COLUMBUS, Ohio — Houses of worship can’t be shut down by local or state officials, and elections can’t be moved from their prescribed dates, under a bill signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Mike DeWine and pushed by fellow Republican lawmakers angered over orders meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
DeWine expressly did not order religious institutions shut down in Ohio because of the pandemic, and was praised by religious groups for that decision.
But because governors in other states restricted religious gatherings in some form, the measure is necessary as a proactive move should such a situation arise in the future, said state Sen. Terry Johnson, a southern Ohio Republican who pushed the proposal.
Other states’ orders disregarded the First Amendment “by forcing the closure of places of worship and religious institutions,” Johnson said in a statement.
National restrictions on churches ranged from a ban on services in California to a 50-person cap for religious services in Nevada. A Minnesota limit on gatherings over 10 people all but shut church services down in the early days of the pandemic, but was eventually eased.
The GOP-controlled Pennsylvania House on Tuesday passed a similar prohibition against a governor shutting down houses of worship, even though Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — like DeWine — did not take such action.
The new law also takes aim at DeWine’s 11th-hour decision in Ohio in March to postpone the state’s in-person primary because of concerns about the coronavirus.
The new statute forbids moving elections other than from the “time, place and manner” spelled out in state law.
House and Senate Republicans have introduced bills to curb the ability of DeWine to fight the coronavirus through public health orders, which have included Ohio’s mandatory mask order, and a ban on alcohol sales in bars and restaurants after 10 p.m.
The latest came Wednesday as state Rep. Diane Grendell, a Republican from Chesterland in northeastern Ohio, introduced a bill that would end the state’s current state of emergency order.
Also Wednesday, the prosecution arm of the Ohio Supreme Court asked that a Cleveland municipal judge be disciplined for issuing arrest warrants for defendants who failed to show up for court hearings at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and then allegedly telling reporters and the court’s chief judge that she did not, according to Cleveland.com.
Ohio reported 1,033 probable and confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, below the 21-day average of 1,092. The state has reported more than 140,000 cases, and 4,555 deaths.
Associated Press writers Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.