DALLAS (CN) — Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warned Democratic leaders in three counties Tuesday to retract stringent face mask, religious service and essential business Covid-19 restrictions, claiming they exceed Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders and may confuse residents.
Paxton’s deputy Ryan Vassar sent letters to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhart in Austin and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in San Antonio, claiming they have each issued a public health order “that exceeds the county’s lawful authority.” The Republican AG also wrote to Austin Mayor Steve Adler and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, an independent.
In Texas, counties’ elected chief executives are called county judges — they are administrative positions with no judicial duties.
Abbott — also a Republican — has allowed his stay-at-home executive order to expire this month and has committed to reopening the Texas economy in phases.
Vassar urged each county to “avoid further confusion and litigation” against the “unconstitutional and unlawful” local restrictions.
“Your order conflicts with the governor’s order by mandating that houses of worship comply with the protocols referenced in your order, including potential limitations on the number of people who can attend religious services,” Vassar’s letter to Jenkins states. “Executive Order GA-21 provides that it supersedes ‘any conflicting order issued by local officials’ to the extent the local order ‘restricts essential services[.]’ … To be clear, Executive Order GA-21 prohibits a local order from limiting the number of people who can attend religious services.”
Vassar warned any local order that “unlawfully tramples on religious freedom” exposes the county to legal liability, citing the U.S. and Texas constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
He also disputed what Dallas County considers an essential business, stating bans on law offices are invalid.
“In particular, the [federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency] guidance identifies as essential ‘workers supporting the operations of the judicial system, including judges, lawyers, and others providing legal assistance,’” the letter states. “Yet you recently announced that law offices are not considered essential under Dallas County’s order.”
Vassar adds that Abbott’s orders “encourage individuals to wear appropriate masks” instead of requiring it, while Dallas County illegally requires anyone over the age of two to wear a mask.
“Your orders purport to strip Texans of their agency,” Vassar wrote. “Although your orders ‘require’ individuals to wear masks when they leave their home, they are free to choose whether to wear one or not.”
Vassar’s letter to Mayor Adler singles out Austin’s orders that bar houses of worship from making hiring decisions based on sexual orientation of gender identity.
Jenkins quickly disputed Paxton’s claims of his orders being too restrictive and confusing.
“We intentionally modeled the public health guidelines based on the governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed,” he said Tuesday evening. “I ask the public to make decisions based on the recommendations of public health professionals; our lives depend on it.”
Paxton’s warning comes one week after he clashed with Dallas County officials over the punishment of Salon a la Mode owner Shelley Luther, who opened her business in spite of shelter-in-place orders still being in place. Dallas County District Judge Eric Moye, a Democrat, put Luther in county jail for seven days after holding her in contempt of court for refusing to comply with a temporary restraining order in a civil lawsuit filed by the city. She declined Moye’s offer of no jail time if she apologized and closed her salon until the closure orders were lifted.
Paxton applauded the Texas Supreme Court intervening in the case and ordering Luther’s release two days into her confinement as it considers her petition for writ of habeas corpus.
“No Texan should face imprisonment for peacefully resisting an order that temporarily closed a lawful business and drastically limited their ability to provide for their family through no fault of their own,” Paxton said at the time. “Texans must all work together to overcome this crisis, and ensuring freedom from excessive punishment is critical.”