Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed an executive order that makes churches an “essential service,” as protocols are being put in place across the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
Abbott included language to encourage online worship services and told church leaders and parishioners to practice “social distancing” to prevent the spread of the virus if they do gather for services.
Abbott said in an interview reported on by Click2Houston:
I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,
Click2Houston reported on a press conference Abbott held:
There has been controversy, particularly in the Houston area, over church closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Pastors are in court challenging a stay-at-home order that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a week ago that restricts churches to online-only services.
To that end, Abbott’s latest executive order supersedes “any conflicting order issued by local officials.”
At the news conference, Abbott said local officials can still issue more stringent restrictions than the statewide standard as long as they do not conflict with that standard.
Law360.com also reported on the legal battle over church services:
The executive order — which also extends school closures statewide through May 4 — comes one day after Fox News guest commentator Dr. Steven Hotze and three Houston pastors asked the Texas Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional a March 24 order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo barring in-person religious services.
“The circumstances presented by coronavirus do not excuse unlawful government infringements upon freedom,” Hotze argued in the emergency petition for writ of mandamus filed with the state’s high court on Monday. “Urgent First and Second Amendment issues of immense statewide significance, arising from the largest county in Texas and affecting residents throughout the Lonestar State, are presented here.”
“If religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, they should be conducted consistent with the guidelines from the president and the [Centers for Disease Control] by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the order reads.
Jared Woodfill of Woodfill Law Firm PC, which represents Hotze and the pastors, told Law360 on Tuesday that the ball is now in Hildalgo’s court.
“The big question now is what does Judge Hidalgo do?” Woodfill said. “Is she going to ignore the governor and his comments or abide by them and amend her order?”
Woodfill said because this lawsuit presents a matter of statewide importance, he took it straight to the Texas Supreme Court, but should the court decline to take it, he’s already preparing several state court lawsuits to challenge the order in Harris County, as well as the orders in Dallas, Montgomery, and Fort Bend counties.
The legal website reported the pastors that joined in the plea to the state’s high court are Juan Bustamante of City on a Hill Church, George Garcia of Power of Love Church, and David Valdez of World Faith Center of Houston Church.
Bustamante alleged in the Law360.com article that a Houston police officer threatened him with jail and a $1,000 fine “if he did not stop preaching the gospel to his congregation,” according to the petition.
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