Texas officials released updated guidance this week stating residents can attend events at churches, mosques, and other houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abbott issued an executive order defining religious services as essential. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Article I of the Texas Constitution, protect the right of Texans to worship and freely exercise their religion.
“Local governments may not order houses of worship to close,” the guidance states.
Still, houses of worship should conduct as many activities as possible remotely. When holding services in person, they are advised to follow guidance from federal officials, including asking sick people to stay home, have attendees stay six feet apart, and encourage frequent hand washing or hand-cleaning with sanitizer.
The guidelines don’t violate religious liberty, the guidance stated, because the social distancing recommendations are not mandatory and are made because the government has “a compelling interest in recommending this guidance (stopping contagion).”
“Government and faith communities throughout Texas must work together to care for our neighbors and slow the spread of COVID-19,” Paxton said in a statement. “This updated guidance provides clear direction for houses of worship to protect the health and safety of their congregations as they continue to hold religious services, exercise religious liberty and serve their faith communities.”
Some churches were ordered to not hold services in person, including under emergency orders issued by Harris and Dallas counties, prompting confusion because of an apparent conflict between state and local guidance.
Many churches and houses of worship closed voluntarily nationwide amid the pandemic, which is caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, a novel coronavirus that emerged from mainland China last year. Some have moved entirely online while others have held drive-in services.
Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel at First Liberty Institute, a group focused on defending religious freedom, said in a statement that the updated guidance “shows respect for religious liberty, and, as long as churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship follow it, provides that they may resume in-person meetings prudently.”