UPDATE 4/13/20 7:04 PM: “My background in the military tells you that in times of crisis, you need one leader that’s going to be the voice of the organization. Betsy’s been great in leading the city and being the voice of the city, for the 6800 employees, [and] for the city council,” District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan said in a Facebook Live video this evening.
During Easter weekend, Fort Worth residents were told they were banned from worshipping together “in-person,” but a closer investigation from Texas Scorecard resulted in more questions, a change in the ban’s wording, finger-pointing from the police department and city attorney, and voters wondering if their city council supports the ban.
On April 7, the Fort Worth City Council unanimously “extended the emergency declaration that was originally signed by Mayor Betsy Price on Monday, April 6, 2020, to implement stay home, work safe restrictions” in response to the coronavirus. Any emergency declaration made by the mayor is active for only seven days unless approved by council.
Among the restrictions was one targeting the faith community: “All in-person worship services remain prohibited, with the exception of worship support staff to facilitate online services.”
On April 10, Texas Scorecard sent inquiries to city council members regarding the ban, and only District 4 Councilman Cary Moon responded, saying that staff was “correcting the communication.”
The next morning, the language was changed to the following:
“According to CDC guidelines, Fort Worth is now considered to have substantial community spread of the virus. Per the CDC, when there is substantial community transmission, all community and faith-based gatherings of any size must be canceled or postponed. Worship services can only be offered online or through drive-in services, where attendees stay in their respective vehicles and are parked at least six feet apart.”
That same morning, Mayor Betsy Price released a video message affirming a ban was still in place—not just from city council, but also from others.
“We are under an order from the governor, the county judge, and the City of Fort Worth for no in-person worship services,” Price said.
Just like the changed language, she acknowledged there could be drive-in services, “but you can’t get out of your car.”
However, on April 2, Gov. Greg Abbott designated “religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship” as essential. Meaning that if worship services could not be held at home or online, “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 both Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released guidance that seemed to confuse the matter.
“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.”
This confusion did not seem to stop Tarrant County’s commissioners from protecting their citizens’ First Amendment rights. After a grassroots uprising over County Judge Glen Whitley’s statement that “in-person worship” was banned countywide—which conflicted with the commissioners’ court order—commissioners forced Whitley to replace his earlier statement with one on April 9 only encouraging people to not meet for worship.
On the same day as Price’s announcement, April 11, Moon told Texas Scorecard: “The communication is not what we voted on [April 7].”
However, District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd disputes this.
“I, a church leader, can tell you that none of us who voted for the Fort Worth shelter in place policy take lightly that we government officials are requiring churches to hold virtual services,” Byrd posted on Facebook.
Texas Scorecard sent a follow-up inquiry to the entire city council, asking if it was true they voted for the ban and unanimously support it. Again, only Moon replied.
“The vote on [April 7] was to extend the [mayor’s] order, who has charter authority to enact such orders under Disaster Proclamation. Council advanced the order [through April 30] to comply with the state’s order. The order was not religion specific. The vote was 9-0.”
Texas Scorecard contacted the Fort Worth Police Department, and they acknowledged they are enforcing the ban, and the punishment for violation was a maximum fine of $500.
“No, officers are not being sent to churches,” said Sergeant Chris Daniels. “If someone reports a complaint about a violation of the emergency declaration, an officer will be dispatched to investigate the matter just as any other complaint.”
When confronted that the city’s order was “significantly and substantially different than Gov. Abbott’s order,” we were asked to contact the Code Compliance Unit, then the city attorney, Sarah Fullenwider.
When contacted, Fullenwider replied in line with Price’s statement, pointing the finger at Abbott and Paxton’s confusing guidance, and also at Tarrant County though not to any act of the commissioners court: she pointed at the Tarrant County Health Authority which had declared the county and surrounding areas “to be in substantial community spread of COVID-19.”
“Again, the City’s Declaration is in compliance and consistent with the Orders of the Governor and Tarrant County,” Fullenwider replied. When asked if Abbott and Tarrant County commissioners had ordered a ban on “in-person worship,” she said:
“I [cannot] speak for the Governor or Judge Whitley. The language in the City’s Declaration, based on the language from the Governor’s Order, the Tarrant County Order, and the guidance from the CDC when the Local Health Authority determines there is substantial spread in the community, is explained in my prior email.”
Again, Tarrant County had issued no order banning “in-person worship.” Whitley now only recommends not meeting for worship.
“We are NOT under an order from the Governor nor the County Judge for ‘no in person worship services,’ Joel Starnes commented on Price’s video. “This is your own little war on Easter from a false premise.”
“Betsy, this is untrue. Governor Abbot supports church services,” wrote Katheryn Moore.
“Your rules are unconstitutional,” added Tammy Rogers. “It’s not right, and a mandate is not a law, just as your rules are not law.”
“If people want to attend church, then let them,” said Sean Densmore. “That’s their right. It’s [called] the 1st Amendment.”
To date, only Councilman Moon has responded to repeated inquiries regarding this situation. On April 10, District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan posted a letter by Price asking residents to follow “the restrictions” during Easter weekend. On April 8, District 5 Councilwoman Gyna Bivens shared a video from Congressman Marc Veasey (D—Fort Worth), where he says: “We are going to probably, in Fort Worth, have to have much a much more aggressive, a much more serious citywide effort to stamp out COVID-19.”
On April 11, Moon released a statement that said in part, “Dialogue needs to commence on a modified approach to get our businesses open and to get people back to work. Voluntary decision making and cooperation among individuals and the private sector can provide a balance to economic activity.”
It was reported over the weekend that the U.S. Department of Justice is considering action regarding local governments targeting religious services. In response to our inquiries sent to Fullenwider and the city council—where we asked if this would affect Fort Worth’s policy and if the city was preparing to spend taxpayer dollars to fight the DOJ—Fullenwider replied:
“I have no further comment on this subject. Everything I had to say regarding this matter was sent in my email to you on Saturday.”
If you or anyone you know has been fined or arrested for violating the “in-person worship” ban, we would like to speak with you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
District 2 Carlos Flores: 817-392-8802, District2@fortworthtexas.gov
District 3 Brian Byrd: 817-392-8803, District3@fortworthtexas.gov
District 4 Cary Moon: 817-392-8804, District4@fortworthtexas.gov
District 5 Gyna Bivens: 817-392-8805, email@example.com
District 6 Jungus Jordan: 817-392-8806, District6@fortworthtexas.gov
District 7 Dennis Shingleton: 817-392-8807, District7@fortworthtexas.gov
District 8 Kelly Allen Gray: 817-392-8808, District8@fortworthtexas.gov
District 9 Ann Zadeh: 817-392-8809, District9@fortworthtexas.gov