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Arkansas’s Church Superspreader Bill Passes House, Limits Ability to Stop Wave of COVID-19 Infections and Deaths

Little Rock, Arkansas—Today, the public policy watchdog American Atheists expressed grave concern about Arkansas’s church superspreader bill (HB 1211), which passed the Arkansas House 75–10 this afternoon. The bill permits houses of worship to ignore reasonable public health restrictions, increasing the likelihood that they will become COVID-19 superspreader sites.

“We are still months away from widespread vaccination yet lawmakers are giving churches special privileges to stay open and spread COVID-19. People will die as a result of this legislation,” warned Alison Gill, Vice President of Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “Church leaders and lawmakers are telling the world that people’s lives are less important than congregating without restrictions. It’s disgusting.”

In 2020, an Arkansas church became the focus of a CDC report connecting high transmission rates of coronavirus to church events. Two symptomatic people attended church events and later tested positive for COVID-19. At least 35 of 92 attendees acquired COVID-19, and three people died as a result.

The CDC detailed how the church’s attendees transmitted the virus to the broader community. “At least 26 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases were identified among community members who, during contact tracing, reported contact with one or more of the 35 [Arkansas] church members with COVID-19 as an exposure. These persons likely were infected by church attendees. Among these 26 persons, one was hospitalized and subsequently died,” found the report.

“Certain church leaders are having their congregations ignore social distancing, go maskless, and sing next to one another. It needlessly spreads disease,” added Gill. “Arkansas lawmakers should be working to ensure that public health restrictions are fair and effective, not adding blanket exemptions for religious groups that put entire communities—and not just churchgoers—at risk. This is selfish and deadly.”

Jerry Cox, president of Family Council, a Christian extremist organization, released a statement, saying, “H.B. 1211 protects houses of worship from being singled out…” Yet even Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor of the sixth largest megachurch in the country, has publicly affirmed that “[churches] are not being discriminated against. This is a safety issue.”

“Some religious groups are metaphorically lighting themselves on fire in order to feel persecuted, insisting that the common-sense safety measures in response to a global pandemic are really a plot to stifle religious expression,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “Arkansas lawmakers should promote science-based public health measures, not conspiracy theories.”