Texas lawmakers hope to exclude places of worship from emergency closures after COVID-19 pandemic shuttered doors

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When 53 people contracted COVID-19 at the Calvary Chapel of San Antonio in June, the church closed for two weeks to protect the rest of its parishioners. It had shut down months before, when the pandemic first swept over Texas and local officials quickly shuttered businesses, office buildings and other places where people gather in person.

More than a year since the government-mandated closure last spring, Pastor Ron Arbaugh says the county didn’t have the right to shutter his church. And despite the outbreak after Gov. Greg Abbott allowed churches to reopen and deemed religious services essential, Arbaugh doesn’t regret welcoming the congregation back.

“I'll never close our doors again,” Arbaugh said. “Even if I would be taken to jail, then I would be taken to jail.”

The required shutdown of places of worship also didn’t sit well with many Texas lawmakers who are now trying to ensure such closures by government officials don’t happen in Texas again.

“When the restrictions were put on the church, it crossed the line from what we could do, which was buy groceries, and what we couldn't do, which was worship as we want to worship,” state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, said.

“Praise God,” she added.

The Texas House has already passed House Bill 1239, which bans state agencies and officials from issuing orders that “close or have the effect of closing places of worship in the state.” But some experts worry the bill could prevent the government from acting to protect people in future emergencies, such as evacuations and public health emergencies. They also worry the bill’s vague wording could lead to unintended consequences.

The Senate has passed Senate Bill 26, similar legislation authored by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney. The House Bill has yet to be assigned to a Senate committee, and the Senate bill has yet to get a hearing in a House committee. Both chambers will have to agree on one of the bills before legislation can be sent to Abbott.