Despite a statewide directive from the governor of Texas designating church services as “essential” and subject to the same safety guidelines as similar activities, Dallas County’s top elected official issued an emergency order prohibiting in-person worship due to the coronavirus outbreak.

County Judge Clay Jenkins’ latest shelter-in-place order, amended April 6 and extending through April 30, says religious and worship services “may only be provided by audio, video, and teleconference.”

At Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting, Commissioner John Wiley Price asked for clarification of the county’s policy on services at churches where attendees can maintain safe distances.

“In places with significant community spread like Dallas, in-person church services should be prohibited,” Jenkins said, adding the governor and the CDC agree.

On March 31, 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:

“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 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, which, “like providers of other essential services, are to follow additional guidance from the White House and CDC whenever possible.”

The City of Dallas issued “FAQs” about the shelter-in-place rules on April 7 that mirror the governor’s order regarding religious and worship services.

More mixed signals about church services are coming from neighboring Tarrant County, where Judge Glen Whitley said Wednesday in a video address to residents that “in-person services are prohibited.”

Whitley’s statement conflicts with both the governor’s order and Whitley’s own county executive order issued on April 3.

Texas Scorecard is continuing to seek clarification from local and state officials.

Dallas County commissioners also voted Tuesday to restrict Jenkins’ emergency power under the county’s coronavirus disaster declaration, responding to residents’ fears their families can’t survive if Jenkins decided to keep the local economy shut down into May.

The judge must now give the court three hours’ notice of proposed new restrictions on essential businesses and get a majority vote of commissioners before extending his current stay-at-home orders beyond April 30.

Dallas residents can contact their county judge and commissioners with questions and comments. Orders and information related to the coronavirus pandemic are on Dallas County’s website.

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.