Kemp wants Georgia governors barred from limiting religious services

Gov. Brian Kemp wants to roll back the scope of the state’s sweeping emergency powers to ensure they can’t be used to “specifically limit the practice of any religion.”

Kemp on Thursday endorsed a proposal, the Faith Protection Act, that would ban him and future governors from restricting whether religious institutions can congregate during a time of statewide emergency, such as a pandemic or other crisis.

“The Faith Protection Act will ensure the emergency powers of any governor of Georgia in the years to come are not used to limit the God-given right to worship,” Kemp said. “In Georgia, we never shuttered churches, synagogues, or other places of worship because we value faith, family, and freedom.”

He added that when he signs the measure into law “Georgia will be a sanctuary state for people of faith.”

Shortly after state lawmakers granted him sweeping powers in March 2020 to contain the pandemic, Kemp publicly agonized about whether he should use his authority to shut down religious services, particularly since outbreaks in some of Georgia’s worst hotspots were linked to religious gatherings.

He opted instead to promote guidance from his office that strongly urged houses of worship to maintain social distancing or risk further restrictions. If they fail to comply, he said during a private call in April with more than 800 clergy members, the state could shut them down.

But he never took that action and, more recently, has talked of ways to ensure that no future governor has to deal with same prickly questions about limiting religious worship.

Other pending legislation could also influence how broadly Kemp and future governors can use the emergency powers, which give his administration the ability to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, restrict travel and limit public gatherings.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, introduced legislation this week that requires lawmakers to approve any extension of a governor’s powers during a state of emergency.