On March 31, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced an executive order requiring all Texans to “minimize in-person contact” through April 30, except to provide or obtain “essential services.”
Abbott’s statewide order, which took effect April 2, supersedes conflicting local orders and specifically designates “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as essential services:
“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 CDC by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
But guidance for houses of worship during the COVID-19 crisis issued jointly by the governor and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton—billed as “the official guidance regarding the effect of Executive Order GA 14 on religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship”—states some houses of worship must avoid large gatherings:
“For example, more detailed guidance from the CDC currently recommends that if a community is experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19, then the houses of worship in that community should cancel all in-person gatherings of any size.”
According to the document, the restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship, because “like providers of other essential services, [they] are to follow additional guidance from the White House and CDC whenever possible.”
Citing the governor’s guidance, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a local order banning in-person church services. In Cameron County, Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said this week he would not allow any in-person or drive-thru church services.
There isn’t so much a conflict between local and state orders as confusion between Abbott’s initial executive order and Abbott and Paxton’s subsequent guidance for in-person worship in the time of coronavirus.
Whether the orders are wise, or constitutional, are questions for another blog.