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Proposed Bill Would Bar Elected Officials from Closing Churches, Even During Disasters

Churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith-based institutions around Texas have found themselves caught in an interlaced web of judges, mayors, and public health officials all wielding the power to close them down since the pandemic first began its disruption.

Now, state Sens. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) and Charles Perry (R-Lubbock) have filed Senate Bill (SB) 251 to keep houses of faith open the next time disaster strikes.

The text of the bill is simple:

“A government agency or public official may not issue an order that closes or has the effect of closing places of worship in the state or in a geographic area of the state.”

The bill would apply to all officials, elected or appointed.

Places of worship took the stage early in the pandemic as cities and counties began closing businesses and ordering citizens to shelter in place.

Many faced pressure to close voluntarily, as in Tarrant County, where County Public Health Director Vinny Taneja urged churches to hold virtual services. Most mosques closed voluntarily during the pandemic’s first wave along with countless churches and other houses of worship that moved to virtual services.

At the state level, religious practices have remained, for the most part, sacrosanct. Governor Abbott’s March shutdown of non-essential activities exempted churches, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion in July stating that religious institutions did not have to obey local closure orders.

Paxton’s definition of religious institutions included religious schools, which met with legal challenges in some counties once the school year came around. Religious schools that hold chapel services could potentially squeeze under the wide umbrella of SB 251, which defines “places of worship” as “a building or grounds where religious activities are conducted.”

Yet confusion has reigned at the local level, where a tangled mesh of competing authorities across the state have often slipped beneath scrutiny. A number of municipalities have ordered churches closed at one point or another during the pandemic. McKinney’s early stay-at-home order that included churches withered quickly under a lawsuit. Fort Worth would also later order churches closed.

Local authorities have typically invoked the Texas Disaster Act, which can empower local officials to take on certain new powers as agents of the governor. In El Paso, County Judge Ricardo Samaniego has relied on the act to issue his lockdowns, which exempted religious activity, against the protests of the mayor of El Paso. The relationship between local officials and the governor within the Texas Disaster Act has been contested, with local officials arguing that they enjoy a range of independence from the state.

State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) has filed a similar bill in the Texas House, though it aims at freedom for religious institutions less directly. Shaheen’s House Bill 525 would classify houses of faith as “an essential business at all times” whose activities may not be interrupted even in cases of disaster. The bill would also allow them to sue for actual or threatened violation of their sovereignty.

Neither Paxton nor Perry responded for comment by the time of publishing.

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