Texas

Texas Churches Can’t Be Forced To Close — Ever — Under New Law

House Bill 1239, also called the Freedom To Worship Act, was passed during this year’s Legislative Session.

Boerne’s First Baptist Church.

Last Spring's 87th Legislature resulted in more than 650 new Texas laws. Public Radio affiliates across Texas have been collaborating to bring you more details on these laws.

One of those is House Bill 1239. The bill states that the government can't tell religious outlets to close for any reason, even during a pandemic.

KERA's Rachel Osier Lindley went Sunday morning to Dallas's Shoreline City Church where the faithful have gathered to worship in a packed house. Some wore face masks.

Jose Estevan Rodriguez was heading inside but stopped to talk to Osier Lindley. He said he's been attending Shoreline City for three years, and it feels like home.

"I went through cancer here. I went through the mourning, the loss of my father here," Rodriguez said. "It was quite the experience and honestly felt like I was put here for a reason."

March a year ago, when coronavirus restrictions put a pause on in-person services, Rodriguez found it difficult.

"When we weren’t near each other, it was very difficult, especially for those individuals that are struggling with depression and loneliness," he said.

At the start of the pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott created a series of executive orders designed to stem the tide of coronavirus cases and deaths that were washing across Texas. His March 19 executive order last year fell short of calling for Texans to shelter in place, but not by much.

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks to media at a press conference regarding COVID on Feb. 27.

"We need everyone in the state of Texas to know and understand the Executive Order that I've already issued," he said in a press conference. "Do not gather in more than groups of 10. All bars and restaurants are closed."

He also closed gyms and schools statewide with that order. While churches weren't explicitly singled out, most fell under that "more than groups of 10" umbrella.

Epidemiologist Cherise Rohr-Allegrini said from a public health perspective, concern over churches made sense. Get a bunch of people into one room, and viruses spread quickly.

"You have people close to each other. Even if they’re not symptomatic, they could be infected and could be sharing the virus," she said.

Also problematic: singing.

"You often have singing in a place of worship, because the way you expel your breath, also is likely to lead to exposure," Rohr-Allegrini said.

After pushback from the governor's executive orders, Abbott declared churches among "essential services" in late March. Many churches reopened and welcomed parishioners back. In Harris County, Judge Lina Hidalgo explicitly banned in-person church services. Soon, several people sued the judge, Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Conservative activist Steve Hotze was part of these lawsuits.

"We have the right to practice our religion freely, and we also have the right to peacefully assemble," he said.

This all inspired Scott Sanford, a Republican State Representative from McKinney, to write and introduce House Bill 1239.

Ken Nwankwo.

"It takes the obstacles that churches ran into during the initial COVID-19 lockdown that were imposed by governmental officials, and makes those illegal," Sanford said. "So it prohibits a government official or agency from taking action that would close a place of worship."

Sanford called what happened at the start of the pandemic "governmental overreach."

"It was clearly that. There would be churches that were closed down while other businesses were allowed to be open, even some unseemly type of businesses were allowed to be open."

So on June 16 this year House Bill 1239, also called the Freedom To Worship Act, was passed — 113 voting yes, 30 no.

Opponents to the law say it could put Texans in a dangerous spot if a more contagious COVID-19 variant arose. Worse yet in the future, if we're hit by an even more deadly pandemic.

Back outside Dallas's Shoreline City Church on Sunday, lobby attendant Ken Nwankwo says he was okay with the government having the authority to stop in-person services, if there was a compelling public health reason. "Our posture is to give to God, what is God's and give to Caesar what is Caesar's," he said. "So it’s okay to trust our leadership and close out a church because our church has had other avenues and systems in place to make sure that we still keep church close."

That's not how John Butz feels.

"There's no reason for government to shut down churches. The government shouldn't shut down anything," he said.

Texas Public Radio's Jack Morgan met him Sunday outside of Boerne's First Baptist Church.

"Separation of church and state: that's one of the big reasons we don't have prayer in school, so why doesn't the government stay out of church?" he asked.

Immunologist Rohr-Allegrini thinks tying the government’s hands in a pandemic just isn't wise.

"Any kind of law like that–it’s harmful to the population. The health authority needs to be able to act as necessary," she said.

With HB 1239 in effect, and if coronavirus cases continue to rise, we may see this conflict between church and state grow instead of subside.

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