Is Gov. Abbott right to prohibit government from closing churches?
- The First Amendment of the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
- During the worst outbreaks of COVID-19, many churches were shut down, but Texas lawmakers have maintained the right to worship saying, “Churches provide essential spiritual, mental and physical support in a time of crisis.”
- On Tuesday, June 15, 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott announced in a tweet, “I just signed a law [HB 1239] that prohibits any government agency or public official from issuing an order that closes places of worship. The First Amendment right to freedom of religion shall never be infringed.”
- According to the state tax code, religious organizations can be defined as a “group of people regularly meeting at a designated location to hold religious worship services.”
Governor Abbott is misguided in pushing legislation stripping the government of powers to close places of worship because religious spaces are public spaces like any other and need to be regulated as such. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there have been many noted cases of super spreaders resulting from religious gatherings or events. Eliminating the power to close the spaces will put the public, both those who choose to worship and those who do not, at risk during public health crises.
When these conflicts between secular rule and religious liberty arise, it's important to consider what many of the world's religions would say. Many of these traditions prioritize compassion and taking care of one's neighbors over participating in elaborate rituals. With the possibilities for virtual worship, it's no surprise that many religious leaders have supported closing their doors during this difficult time. There is no doubt that closing these spaces caused real pain for individuals. However, we must ask if this type of legislation is allowed to pass, where does it end? Would religious groups be allowed to bypass building safety codes or other regulations put in place for public safety? It's easy to see how this could become a slippery slope ending with very real consequences.
Ultimately, this is a matter of the separation of church and state. By eliminating the government's ability to close these public meeting places, this legislation would put churches and other houses of worship above the government and potentially in charge of public health. According to our Constitution and for public safety, the government should have the final say.
Governor Abbott is right to prohibit the government from closing churches as he is merely recognizing and defending Texans' rights as Americans to exercise their freedom of religion. This freedom is so important that the framers of the Constitution placed it first in the Bill of Rights. Aside from the Constitutional argument in favor of churches remaining open, it's obvious churches and other places of worship were unfairly treated during the lockdown. Supermarkets, pharmacies, and other stores and restaurants were allowed to conduct business at near or full capacity, but churches were shut down. Churches tried to make modifications to be compliant with the ever-changing mandates (which were arguably not scientifically validated). For instance, many churches modified their service schedule to accommodate their parishioners (like doubling the number of services while halving the number of attendees permitted) and streaming services online.
'Gathering […] is at the core of faith and religion,' and in some faiths, it is essential to be in-person to receive sacraments, and sacraments are essential to a believer's faith. Perhaps the scariest thing we've witnessed in the past year is the extent to which the government has used COVID-19 as a pretext for overreach into private citizens' personal choices and suspension of our fundamental rights. Government officials need to know there are limits to their power.
Church gathering is an essential part of life for many Texans—in fact, Texas has been ranked as the 10th most religious state in the country. Churches provide hope, comfort, and social interaction when it's needed most—during times of crisis and individual challenge. The disruption of the past 15 months with business closures, job losses, and media-hyped doom has created a heightened need to keep churches open, which Gov. Abbott recognizes.