Since March 24, Dallas County residents have been banned by their county judge from gathering together and worshipping. This past Saturday, one of their county commissioners admitted the ban may be unconstitutional and he has the ability to take action, but he won’t—even if it means voters throw him out.
On March 24, in response to the coronavirus, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued an order that banned in-person worship services. The most recent order, from April 8, reads as follows:
“Religious and worship services may only be provided by audio, video, and teleconference. Religious institutions must limit in-person staff to ten (10) people or less at one time, and twenty-five (25) people total per day, when preparing for or conducting video or teleconference services, and all individuals must follow the Social Distancing Rules including the six feet social distancing.”
On April 11, Texas Scorecard asked District 2 Commissioner J.J. Koch if he supported the ban and if it had the support of the commissioners court. Similar inquiries were sent to the rest of the commissioners, but thus far, no reply has been received from them.
Local activist Troy Jackson also asked Koch about his position on Koch’s Facebook page.
“This is a very simple question that requires an answer[.] [Y]ou not answering is not a good look[.] [A]s you know[,] I worked very hard serving on your campaign to get [you] elected[.] [D]on’t put me in a position where I have to work against you because you start working against what you say you stand for[.] [T]ake [a] position so that we can take a position as your supporters. We need to know where you stand on this in person worship ban in Dallas county.”
2019 Conservative Leader Award winner Eugene Ralph also asked Koch about his position.
“I don’t need an explanation,” Ralph wrote. “Do you support the Ban? A simple yes or no will do.”
Saturday, Koch went on live on Facebook to respond. Like Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, he pointed the finger at Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
“The governor issued what was a very clear statement in his order: in-person services are essential,” Koch said. “After that order, the interpretation that came from his office and Attorney General walked that back.”
“Places that have wide community spread can shut down in-person church services,” he continued. The discrepancies between Abbott’s order and his later joint guidelines with Paxton have caused confusion amongst Texans.
This confusion didn’t stop Tarrant County’s commissioners from taking action when their spokesperson—County Judge Glen Whitley—contradicted their court order and claimed they also had an in-person worship ban. After a grassroots uprising, the commissioners forced Whitley to walk back his claim.
Shortly after pointing to Abbott and Paxton, Koch then admitted their guidelines, as well as Dallas County’s ban, may conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
“From a constitutional perspective, it’s probably really not constitutional,” Koch said.
“If someone were to file a lawsuit, say we’re going to hold in-person services, we’re going to have our people six feet apart, there’s not going to be more than ten people in each individual room, and they wanted to do that in Dallas County. Let’s say they went ahead and did that, got fined, and they went through the legal process. I think it’s very possible that the fines and penalties would be removed because the order was unconstitutional,” he added.
Despite the ban’s dubious constitutionality, Koch still expressed support for it. “I think on the policy and scientific side, we’re going to see more benefit by not seeing people going to churches here in Dallas County,” he said.
Repeatedly, questions have surrounded the veracity of the data Dallas County has been using. The numbers from their original model were drastically revised down and were full of asterisks. Dallas County’s Health and Human Services director, Dr. Philip Huang, admitted they’re now using models similar to the earlier discredited one. Their models assumed that out of the 650,000 who it claims will contract the virus, 62 percent will require a ventilator.
Sources told Texas Scorecard on April 3 that there were 13 coronavirus patients on ventilators at Parkland Hospital, and most of the patients who died had an underlying condition. An owner of several outpatient emergency clinics in Dallas spoke with Texas Scorecard about his record low patient volumes.
In addition to admitting the county is using a likely erroneous model, Huang admitted the county isn’t tracking recoveries and struggled to answer what the incubation period for the coronavirus is, before finally revealing it is just four days.
During another Facebook Live broadcast on April 14, Koch said the county was not going to reach their hospital capacity or their ventilator capacity.
During his April 11 broadcast, Koch admitted that as a county commissioner he does have the power to act against the ban—but he won’t.
“I’m willing to be judged in that regard, if I end up kind of not acting—and that’s essentially what I’m doing, not acting—when there’s something out there that may be unconstitutional. If that’s worthy of removing me from office at some point, then I get it.”
Rather, Koch appears to be waiting for the courts to get involved.
“If a court comes by and says this was wrong and it shouldn’t have been done like this, I’m comfortable with that.”
On April 7, Koch introduced and helped pass amendments that limited Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins’ authority after a strong grassroots reaction to the judge’s statement that he would extend shelter-in-place to May 20. Now, Jenkins must seek majority approval from the commissioners before extending the shelter-in-place order.
During his April 14 Facebook Live, Koch said, “It’s time to start easing up these restrictions, slowly.” When it came to lifting the in-person worship ban, he said, “I still think that’s a little bit off. Major gatherings are still going to be the nexus of a ton of problems.”
District 2 Commissioner J.J. Koch can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at 214-653-6100.