Since the Senate adopted its rules for the regular session that began in January, visitors to all Senate activities — the chamber and gallery, committee hearings, and official press conferences — have been required to wear face coverings and a wristband proving that they tested negative for COVID-19.
“The Lt. Governor doesn’t vote on Senate Rules, but he agrees with the unanimous decision of the Texas Senate to test in order to protect the public, the Capitol staff who interact with hundreds of visitors every day, as well as members of the Legislature,” said Steven Aranyi, the press secretary for the lieutenant governor.
The COVID-19 tests are provided to the public at no cost — aside from being taxpayer-funded — at the north side of the Capitol in two temporary tents.
Some have been outspoken in their opposition to the rules, such as parents of children with special needs who see the rules as obstacles that effectively prohibit their participation at committee hearings.
Though the first half of the session was rather uneventful as both chambers adjourned at multiple points for extended periods of time, committee hearings are now fully underway with several significant bills being heard.
Jared Woodfill, the attorney who filed the suit for Miller and Hotze, said that Hotze planned to attend the Senate State Affairs hearing on several election bills yesterday.
That hearing was delayed because of an unrelated procedural move deployed by Senate Democrats, but Woodfill says he hopes the delay will give the courts time to approve a temporary injunction to enjoin the Senate from enforcing the testing mandate.
“Patrick is leading an unconstitutional effort to shut down Texan’s access to their government. A medical procedure has never been required to access one’s government,” said Woodfill.
Central to the arguments of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that the testing requirement violates Article III, Section 16 of the Texas constitution, which states, “The session of each House shall be open, except the Senate when in Executive session.”
The lawsuit also claims that the testing requirements violate the constitutional protections of free speech and the right of a citizen to petition the government.
Woodfill says that the “situation is more egregious” considering that the Texas House of Representatives has not required COVID-19 tests to access their activities, and the State Preservation Board even ended the mask requirement for all other parts of the Capitol when Gov. Greg Abbott ended the statewide mandate.
In a statement to The Texan in February, Sen. Charles Schwertner (R-Georgetown) said that the rules would “be revisited approximately 60 days after the beginning of session with further relevant data that will be taken into account.”
That 60-day mark is now almost two weeks in the past, but the Senate has not yet changed its rules or indicated that it will.
“Governor Abbott is opening up businesses while Patrick is shutting down the people’s access to their government,” said Woodfill. “Patrick’s rule seems to be: Be tested or be silent!”
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Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.