HOUSTON (CN) — Should houses of worship be allowed to stay open amid public health crises or natural disasters? Even pastors are divided on this question. Texas voters will decide on Nov. 2 if such autonomy should be enshrined in the state constitution.
Proposition 3 seems straightforward: It would add a new section to the Texas Constitution barring the state or local governments from prohibiting or limiting religious services.
But Lee Kleinman, a Dallas community leader, is worried it could give churches providing shelter to homeless people during storms, for instance, cover to ignore code restrictions limiting how many people can stay there overnight. As some churches may argue that, according to their doctrine, ministering to the homeless is a religious service.
Some civil rights attorneys agree.
“Proposition 3 is extreme and unnecessary,” said Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
She said it would give houses of worship an absolute right to hold services during an emergency.
“No matter how dangerous it may be and no matter the nature of the emergency, whether a hurricane, tornado, wildfire, pandemic, or some other urgent situation,” she added.
Kleinman, then a member of the Dallas City Council, laid out these concerns before a Texas House committee in March and was scolded by Republican state Representative Phil King.
“I don’t think there’s anybody, any court, anywhere, that would read this to say that if there’s a true health and safety issue that you can’t enforce that issue … And it’s really disappointing that you would try to stretch it like this,” King said to applause from churchgoers in the audience.
Clapping in Texas Legislature hearings is unusual and discouraged. Yet it was fitting for a resolution ultimately approved by 28 out of 31 state senators, and more than 100 House members, giving it the two-thirds vote needed in each chamber to put the constitutional amendment on the November ballot.
The bipartisan support is not surprising, according to Eric McDaniel, a professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin.
“Religion, especially in Texas, is very important to people and no politician wants to be seen as anti-religion. … Going after religion in Texas is probably worse than going after Social Security,” he said.
As the coronavirus started to spread in Texas in March 2020, Governor Greg Abbott, a proud practicing Catholic, ordered schools and nonessential businesses to close and barred social gatherings of over 10 people, in accord with federal guidance.
“All critical infrastructure will remain operational,” he declared. He did not mention houses of worship, leaving them confused if they could stay open.
Two weeks later, the two-term Republican governor issued another order deeming religious services “essential.” But he said churches should follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and limit them to no more than 10 people.
Coming right before Palm Sunday, the start of Holy Week for Christian congregations that leads up to Easter Sunday, Abbott’s order was ignored by a handful of churches across the state.
Nearly 100 members of Glorious Way Church in Houston gathered for a Palm Sunday service. Most did not wear masks.
“The government’s powers stop at the church’s doors,” the church’s attorney told Houston’s CBS affiliate at the time.
Several Houston-area pastors, joined by local Republican Party leaders, sued Abbott over the church restrictions, accusing him of imposing “draconian, unconstitutional requirements.”
Faced with a growing chorus from Republican politicians--including two who are running against him in the 2022 primary for the governor’s seat — and business owners that he was hurting the economy and abusing his authority, Abbott was one of the first governors to lift all Covid-19 restrictions this spring.