87th LegislatureState HouseState SenateConstitutional Amendment to Keep Religious Services Open During Disasters Passes Texas House

While other bills would apply to all religious activity, this proposed amendment would only apply to religious services.
May 12, 2021
Yesterday, the Texas House passed a proposal to keep churches, mosques, and temples open during disasters with bipartisan support.

Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 27 reached the House floor after passing the Texas Senate with 28 affirmative votes. Sens. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas) and Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin) were the only two senators to vote nay, and Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) was counted absent.

It passed the House with 108 yeas and 33 nays according to the unofficial tally.

“SJR 27 very simply proposes a constitutional amendment making it explicitly clear that the state, or any political subdivision of the state, cannot close down or limit our houses of worship or religious services. Period,” said Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), carrier of the bill’s House companion.

Rep. John Turner (D-Dallas) took issue with the proposed amendment’s broad language and said existing law, which forbids government interference in religion unless it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, already protects religious liberty well enough.

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“I am also a very strong supporter of religious liberty and believe deeply in the importance of faith and also religious services as described here on this floor, and I don’t want any differences about this amendment to obscure that fact,” Turner said.

“That said, I want to ask you about this amendment. One thing I see here in the language — it says that no rule or law or statute or order, et cetera, may… limit religious services, correct? So, for instance, that would mean there could never be any restrictions on capacity.”

Leach argued that the text’s unflinching wording was necessary since the state of current law has allowed county judges and other local officials to shut down churches while keeping other institutions like bars open.

“I trust our judges across the state, our fact-finders in conjunction with the people, to make sure those instances are still protected,” Leach said, referring to enforcements of certain safety measures like the fire code.

“That’s not what this bill is meant to address.”

Turner also claimed the amendment would undo laws against hallucinogenic drugs if a group decides to use them in a religious service.

Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), a Catholic, said his faith outweighed whatever dangers might prompt a shutdown of his church.

“I will tell you that no government, no mayor, no governor, no one, should be able to keep you from going to church,” Canales said.

“All we have, I believe, is our everlasting soul. And to commit a mortal sin and to be denied the privilege to worship God is not something the government should ever have its hand in. So the reality here is we have a chance. If it’s dangerous, and you want to go to church, well by God, you go to church… This isn’t just about Christians. It’s about mosques, it’s about all people of faith.”

More than 30 Democrats joined Canales in voting for SJR 27.

SJR 27 and its companion, House Joint Resolution (HJR) 72 by Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano), share similarities with several other bills of the same goal but differ in scope. HJR 72 received a lengthy hearing in committee alongside House Bill (HB) 525 by Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) and similar legislation by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) and Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington).

SJR 27, the shortest of these bills, would put in place a simple amendment to the Texas Constitution to prohibit government bodies at the state and local level from prohibiting or limiting religious services.

Shaheen’s HB 525, perhaps the strongest, would apply to all religious activity instead of just services. It also waives governmental immunity to allow citizens to sue for relief and authorizes the attorney general to enforce compliance through suits as well. HB 525 passed to engrossment today.

HB 1239 by Sanford simply states that “a government agency or public official may not issue an order that closes or has the effect of closing places of worship in this state or in a geographic area of this state.” Its companion in the Senate by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) is one of Lt. Gov Dan Patrick’s priorities. Sanford’s House version passed out of the House and its Senate committee and awaits a vote on the Senate floor. Paxton’s version made it to the House and is in the State Affairs committee, awaiting a calendar placement.

Tinderholt’s HB 1691 effectively mirrors Shaheen’s HB 525 but is organized differently. It first states that the governor “may not issue an executive order, proclamation, or regulation related to a declared state of disaster” that restricts religious activity, limits religious services, or interferes with the operation of a religious organization. It then lists the same prohibition for local governments. It has not passed committee and is officially dead as of May 10, the last day for committees to report bills.

At the committee hearing, only one government official spoke against the bills: Lee Kleinman, a Dallas councilman representing the city, who argued that the legislation could prevent cities from enforcing safety measures during natural disasters like tornadoes.

Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders during the pandemic left churches largely untouched. He issued no order that closed them, nor did he intervene in local shutdowns.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the status of HB 1239. We regret the error.


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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.