Since the shutdown of many aspects of life during the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, the status of churches has been very nebulous. It’s not getting any easier as the state begins phased reopening procedures under the new plan from Gov. Greg Abbott.
Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have been attempting a balancing act between the rights granted houses of worship by the first amendment and the need to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. The governor has spent a considerable amount of time explaining that churches may remain open while at the same time urging them not to be open to help stem the spread of coronavirus. Likewise, Paxton has issued three separate opinions providing guidance to churches and other places of worship in the last month.
It is clear, they have also worked to be mindful of the sensitivities of their conservative base.
From the beginning, places of worship were deemed essential services exempt from Abbott’s stay-at-home orders, but with large gatherings banned, many of them pursued other methods of reaching their congregations. Zoom and virtual services became popular. (My step-sister recently had a wedding with Zoom options.)
Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church in Houston went a step further, and actually taped pictures of parishioners to pews for its virtual services.
That said, the backlash from some corners of the religious right responded viciously to orders to stay at home and social distance to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Florida-based law firm Liberty Counsel has been working on a campaign to get people back physically in pews. The firm used Crossroads Church, a megachurch outside Dallas, as the launching pad for what it considers adequate protocols to combat the deadly virus, which is showing no signs of slowing in the state. The firm’s suggested procedures include social distancing, live-streaming services and self-quarantining of the known ill.
Rev. Nico Mathews of the New Spirit of Life Missionary Baptist Church in Houston understands the backlash despite the danger.
“I think it’s so confused because this is honestly one of the first times that people have had their First Amendment religious rights infringed upon,” he said. “The state doesn’t want to do more than it has to because of that, but safety has got to come first. Luckily, we have the mayor and Judge (Lina) Hidalgo to follow. We’re going by their orders. We’re not opening up again until it’s safe. It would be nice if the governor brought religious leaders to the table. There wasn’t anyone on his task force that had ever led a congregation.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton has joined with Abbott to make statements about the religious rights of Texans during this time — statements that seem to place far more emphasis on the right of people to congregate at houses of worship than their safety regarding limiting the spread of the disease.
“The government must give special consideration to houses of worship when issuing orders related to the COVID-19 crisis,” reads the attorney general’s statement from April 27. “The First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I of the Texas Constitution protect the right of Texans to worship and freely exercise their religion according to the dictates of their own consciences. In addition, the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides additional protections to faith communities, and government must ensure that it complies with RFRA when it acts, even during a disaster. Thus, when state or local governments issue orders prohibiting people from providing or obtaining certain services, they must ensure that these orders do not violate these constitutional and statutory rights.”
The plan for reopening merely recommends and encourages compliance with a standard set of safety protocols for churches. These include keeping empty seats between households, holding remote services when possible, training staffers in proper cleaning and disinfecting objects, etc. The message from the state leaders goes out of its way to make clear that they have no intention of mandating that houses of worship follow the guidelines, staying very hands-off when it comes to telling the churches what to do.
“The guidelines make only recommendations to houses of worship,” the statement says. “They do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship.”
Many churches in Texas are already welcoming back their flocks — some more prudently than others. The Life Family megachurch in Austin opened this past weekend for in-person worship but limited its attendance to 350 (out of 1,500 seats) and checked parishioners for proper protective gear before letting them in. Worshippers elbow bumped instead of hugging.
It’s to be hoped that Texas churches won’t end up like Texas beaches, with people throwing far more caution to the wind than is advised in their desire to return to normal.
Unfortunately, many churches might be keen to open as soon as possible for the same reason that many businesses are: money. Mathews spoke about the hardships that empty churches have faced, especially in certain communities, even if they are trying to use safer, digital means.
“A lot of churches are struggling. African American churches in particular are less likely to have PayPal and other methods of funding,” he said. “We get our money the old-fashioned way: in the collection plate on Sundays. Many of us are going to start having the same hard time with payroll that restaurants and stores are having.”