For a mid-week moment, it appeared Florida’s chief executive had accorded great regulatory and enforcement authority to local governments in issuing his statewide stay-at-home order.
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decree allowed local governments to impose tighter restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic than levied by the state, other than those stipulated in the order.
The executive order bucked a decades-long trend in state Republican leadership’s use of “predatory preemption” to whittle away at home rule across the regulatory landscape.
DeSantis cleared away any confusion such a thing was to occur in a Thursday amendment memo that declared his order “shall supersede any conflicting official action or order issued by local officials in response to COVID-19.”
The revised order reinterprets a line in the original decree allowing local governments to implement restrictive orders by erasing it.
Nevertheless, DeSantis assured reporters Thursday, the revised order ensures “the baseline” and local governments can impose stricter measures if they choose.
Local governments “can go beyond what I’ve done. What we’re doing is setting a floor,” he said. “And they can’t go below the floor.”
Except when it comes to religious services.
DeSantis’ order defines "religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship" as “essential” and, therefore, preempts local restrictions on religious gatherings. The original did not do so.
“I don’t know that they would have the authority, quite frankly, to close a religious ... the Constitution doesn’t get suspended here. There’s got to be ways where you can accommodate,” DeSantis said.
The governor met with religious leaders and agreed “their work is important” and should be classified as “essential.”
“There is no reason why you can’t do a church service 6 feet apart,” he said. “In times like this, I think the service that they are performing is going to be very important to people, particularly coming up in the Easter season.”
Michigan, New Mexico, Delaware, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia are among states with stay-at-home exemptions for religious services.
Virginia and Maryland require places of worship to limit in-person services to fewer than 10 people, which is the same as President Donald Trump’s administration’s 30-day guidelines and DeSantis’ stay-at-home order – except, apparently, for religious services.
Local officials are on edge as some pastors, such as Brandon megachurch preacher Rodney Howard-Browne, threaten to defy stay-at-home orders to open their churches for services Easter Sunday, a little more than a week away.
The Evangelical pastor of The River at Tampa Bay Church was arrested on misdemeanor counts of unlawful assembly and violation of a county-wide order after he was warned to limit his congregation to fewer than 10 people in compliance with a county stay-at-home order.
Claiming the restriction violated his First Amendment rights, Howard-Browne staged two services Sunday at his megachurch south of Tampa, drawing up to 500 worshippers.
He has since hired Liberty Counsel attorney Mathew Staver. Staver represented Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay people in 2015.
In a live streamed call-in Thursday, Browne said he had closed the church “to protect the congregation, not from the virus, but from a tyrannical government."
He said the church would remain closed through Sunday, Palm Sunday, but did not dismiss hosting services on Easter Sunday on April 12.
"At this time, I have not made any decision about Easter Sunday or services thereafter," he said. "Adonica (his wife) and I are praying and seeking the Lord for wisdom. I will say, however, that the church cannot be closed indefinitely."