New Hampshire lawmakers seek protections for houses of worship, Sununu weighs allowing backyard hair salons

By Christian Wade | The Center Square

Churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship in New Hampshire were shut down for months as the state limited public gatherings to curb spread of the coronavirus.

But a proposal moving through the legislative process would prevent the state or local governments from shutting them down during future public health emergencies.

HB542 which passed the Senate last week, would prevent the state from enforcing emergency health, safety, or occupancy regulations that would impose a “substantial burden” on religious services. The measure was previously approved by the House of Representatives.

The measure was approved largely along party lines in both chambers, with Republicans supporting the legislation and Democrats opposing it.

Gov. Chris Sununu/Facebook

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu

During the pandemic, Gov. Chris Sununu’s emergency stay-at-home order prohibited churches from holding in-person services.

Supporters of the bill argue that the state was wrong to declare houses of worship “nonessential services” during the pandemic, while allowing hardware, grocery and liquor stores to remain open.

“Quite frankly, if Home Depot was considered to be an essential service I think a church, and someone’s ability to go to worship, should also be an essential service,” Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said during a hearing on the bill last week. “We need to consider this as an essential service if and when we should ever do this again.”

Carson and other supporters said even if churches are exempted from shut down orders, parishioners would still be required to wear masks and take other safety precautions.

Opponents said they were concerned that the changes would impact the state’s ability to protect the public during a public health emergency, such as a pandemic.

Sen. Rebecca Whitley, D-Hopkinton, said she felt the measure was being rushed through the legislative process without consideration to the potentially adverse impact.

“The freedom to attend a worship service and practice religion is one of our most fundamental rights and one I take seriously,” Whitley said. “But I think we need to have a discussion about the balance of that most fundamental right with emergency powers, with public health and safety. And I don’t feel like we’ve had adequate time to do that.”

Opponents also pointed out that despite the COVID-19 restrictions churches and other houses of worship were still able to reach the masses by remote services and other creative ways of allowing people to continue to worship.

Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said provisions of measure added by House lawmakers would allow private businesses to violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws. He noted that similar legislation approved in Indiana and Arizona sparked corporate boycotts of those states.

“This bill can allow businesses to use these principles to exempt themselves from our discrimination laws,” Bissonnette told the panel.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office didn’t take a position on the bill, but pointed out that it could result in state sponsored discrimination against people seeking housing.

The proposal now heads back to the House, where lawmakers will consider changes to the bill made by the Senate.

If the House agrees with the latest version of the bill, it will head to Sununu’s desk for consideration.

Sununu weighs legalizing backyard hair salons

Cutting someone’s hair without a professional license is a crime in New Hampshire, but that could change under a bill sent to the governor for consideration.

A proposal passed by the state Senate last week, which is pending approval by Sununu, would update the state’s occupational license laws to exempt services “provided without remuneration” from license requirements for barbering, cosmetology, and esthetics.

Under current law, cutting hair without a state license is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $2,000 or one year in prison.

The law covers other professions and bans anyone from hiring a person “to engage in a practice regulated by this chapter, unless such person then holds a valid license or a temporary permit issued by the board to practice the respective profession.”

While the law is meant to prohibit unlicensed barber shops and other underground operations, it also means that cutting your neighbors’ hair could technically get you arrested.

The regulations became an issue during the pandemic when barbershops and hair stylists were forced to close to prevent spread of the coronavirus, leaving people with few options to get a haircut.

It’s not clear that anyone has been charged, but lawmakers who proposed the changes saw the antiquated law as an affront to the Granite State’s “Live Free or Die” motto.

Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, the bill’s primary sponsor, said during the pandemic the law turned people trying to help family, friends or neighbors into criminals just by cutting their hair or trimming their nails.

“That generated a fair amount of ridicule that they were criminals by getting their hair cut by a neighbor instead of a licensed professional,” McGuire said during a hearing on the bill in February. “Right now, our laws do not make any exemptions on this criminality. It’s a crime to cut your baby’s fingernails.”

The measure was opposed by cosmetology groups, who argued that it would provide an opportunity for unlicensed barber shops and other illegal businesses to proliferate.

McGuire disagreed with that argument, saying the changes to the occupational laws would essentially mean “if you’re not getting paid, it’s not a crime.”

The bill’s passage was praised by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, which called the changes a “sensible step to eliminate the criminalizing of cosmetology without pay.” The group urged Sununu to sign it.

“Tens of thousands of Granite Staters engaged in criminal activity last spring when people cut family members’ hair without a license after barber shops and salons were forcibly closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting government orders,” Ross Connolly, the group’s deputy state director. “Getting a government permission slip to cut a friends or loved ones’ hair is absurd and needs to be changed.”

Images courtesy of Public domain and Gov. Chris Sununu/Facebook