Protect Our Freedom to Worship Act a Priority for Lt. Governor Dan Patrick

This week, a bill filed by Senator Angela Paxton to protect churches from government closures was re-filed with a low bill number, SB 26, indicating it is a priority for passage for the Texas Lt. Governor’s office. This is great news and fulfills Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s promise from the previous week to file a bill protecting religious freedom during a pandemic as a top priority for the 87th Texas Legislative Session. An identical version of SB 26 has been filed in the Texas House, HB 1239 by Rep. Scott Sanford.

The bill, SB 26, would make it clear that no government official can close churches or any place of worship during a pandemic, especially not when other businesses and establishments are allowed the right to open. Last year, churches across the country were told to close while grocery stores, liquor stores, strip clubs and even casinos were allowed to remain open. Some churches in Texas were even told how to conduct worship services during a pandemic when police circled their drive-in church services.

The United States Supreme Court has already provided guidance on the issue of protecting the rights of churches to stay open during a pandemic or other emergency circumstances in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn New York v. Cuomo, 592 U.S._ (2020). The Supreme Court in that case struck down a government official’s attempt to use the Covid-19 crisis to restrict religious services.

Texas Values will be working hard to make sure that SB 26 & HB 1239 reach the finish line. The following are reasons why we need to protect churches in Texas:

• Pandemic restrictions on religious organizations are a relatively recent and dangerous precedent for religious freedom. Case law supports the essential nature of religious organizations and religious services.

• The U.S. Supreme Court said it has “long recognized the importance of protecting religious actions, not just religious status.” Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Revenue, 140 S. Ct. 2246 (2020).

• There is a real need in law, as many major cities in Texas such as Dallas and Austin ordered churches to close their doors during the pandemic. Meeting in person is essential for churches.

• Many churches reported having police officers circle their parking lots even when holding church parking lot services where members sat in their individual spaced out cars for worship. The fear and intimidation suffered by churches must stop.

• Churches in states like California and Nevada were told to close while strip clubs and casinos were allowed to remain open. We can’t let this happen in Texas.

• Churches are essential because of the spiritual and mental health support they provide in times of crisis. The pandemic and economic stress caused a majority of Americans to face stress and mental health issues. For this reason, churches should be deemed essential.

Our legislative action arm, Texas Values Action, is encouraging all Texans to contact your Texas Senate and House members and ask them to support SB 26 and HB 1239!

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