May 27—CONCORD — The state Senate on Thursday approved COVID-19 response bills requiring houses of worship to be open during a state of emergency, formalizing a resident's right to refuse a vaccine and strengthening the Legislature's say in future emergencies.
These measures cleared the Senate during a marathon session in Representatives Hall on nearly all House-passed bills, except the two-year state budget (HB 1) and its companion trailer bill (HB 2).
On religious liberty, the Senate voted along partisan lines, 14-10, to pass an amended bill (HB 542) that would make religious groups "essential" and allowed to remain open during a future state of emergency.
"It is a fundamental right to be able to go to an institution of worship. Closing it down causes more harm," said Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua.
The legislation followed an outcry over the closure of all churches and synagogues for months after the COVID-19 outbreak.
"Religious organizations should be treated with a heightened level of importance," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry.
State Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Hopkinton, said religious groups enjoy protections under the state and federal constitutions, and this bill would too broadly define organizations that could qualify.
"Nearly anybody could claim to be organizing for religious purposes," Whitley said.
The Senate struck from the bill a broader expansion of religious liberty, which civil rights leaders and state prosecutors warned could permit the owner of any business to discriminate based on their personal religious beliefs.
Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, said the state Supreme Court ruled in December that churches had broad powers under the free exercise clause of the New Hampshire Constitution.
"This bill does not prevent the state from imposing mask requirements or capacity limits on religious gatherings, but it ensures that religious liberty is protected, especially during a time of emergency," said Ammon, who authored the bill.
The immunization bill (HB 220) would recognize that every individual has the right to refuse to take any vaccine.
It would also prevent state, county or local government from denying a person any "public service" or "benefit" because they were not vaccinated.
Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, had wanted the bill to include "any medical intervention," but a majority on a Senate committee wanted to limit its impact.
"This is one of the most contentious bills we have had all year," Bradley said.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, a physician, led the opposition to the bill, warning that it would erode public support for vaccines.
"New Hampshire already has codified religious and medical exemptions for those individuals who want to make the personal choice to not receive vaccinations." Sherman said
"This unnecessary bill will dangerously interfere with state and national efforts to protect public health."
The Senate approved the bill, 14-10, with all Republicans in support and all Democrats in opposition.
The Senate unanimously approved legislation (HB 417) that in the future would permit the Legislature to eliminate by a majority vote any executive order issued during a state of emergency.
The measure also would change the length of that emergency status from 21 to 30 days.
In addition, it would require the governor to get the support of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to spend more than $100,000 to deal with a crisis.
The bill would give the governor the power to act on his own without legislative approval to take actions if the public health was "at risk."