Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released the “Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis” on Wednesday to clarify what Abbott meant when he claimed churches were essential in his latest round of executive orders.
In the clarification, Abbott and Paxton called on government officials and faith communities to work together to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and highlighted several guidelines for local officials to follow.
- The government must give special consideration to houses of worship when issuing orders related to COVID-19 crisis. Citing the First Amendment and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they argue local officials must tread carefully when restricting certain services offered by the faith community.
- Houses of worship provide “essential services.” Those services include religious gatherings in churches, congregations, and houses of worship. Those institutions like Prestonwood can provide essential services under certain conditions highlighted in Abbott’s latest round of executive orders.
- Houses of worship must, whenever possible, conduct their activities from home or through remote audio or video services. Abbott and Paxton point out that large groups of people gathering at a megachurch just isn’t going to cut during this public health crisis. So religious leaders must follow certain mitigation strategies to conduct those services, which means employing technology such as remote audio, video, or teleconference activities whenever possible.
- If a house of worship cannot conduct its activities remotely, then the White House and CDC guidelines still control in order to stop the spread of Coronavirus. Which means, they must follow these guidelines:
- Instruct sick employees, volunteers, and guests to stay home;
- Practice social distancing by maintaining appropriate distance between people;
- Maintain good hygiene by washing your hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, using your elbow to cover coughs, and not touching your face;
- Clean and disinfect work areas frequently.
- Some houses of worship must avoid large gatherings. Despite item 4’s requirements, Abbott and Paxton recommends megachurches work with municipalities “to evaluate the rate of local community spread and determine the appropriate level of mitigation strategies to implement. “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. But if a community is experiencing moderate to substantial spread, then the CDC recommends a reduction of activities in coordination with local health officials, possible smaller gatherings incorporating social-distancing measures, cancelation of activities with 10 or more people when high-risk populations attend in person and use of creative means to deliver other faith-based services.”
Abbott and Paxton end their guidance by pointing out that these restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship. They argue that under the extraordinary circumstances in which we temporarily live, the government has a compelling interest for restricting their activities and services: to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“All Texans must work together to stop the spread of COVID-19, and houses of worship face a particular challenge as we work to combat this pandemic,” Paxton said in the press release. “This guidance provides clear direction for houses of worship to protect the health and safety of Texans as they continue to hold religious services, exercise their religious liberty, and serve their faith communities.”