87th LegislatureLaw to Keep Faith Organizations ‘Essential’ During Disasters Takes Immediate Effect

Perhaps the broadest law of its kind to pass the 87th legislature, Shaheen's bill applies to the state and all its local subdivisions.
June 22, 2021
Prompted by the pandemic shutdowns, a newly passed law to keep religious organizations active during disasters took immediate effect on Friday.

House Bill (HB) 525 by state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) blocks all government bodies at or below the state level from stopping the activities of churches, mosques, temples, or any house of faith. Governmental entities may not “prohibit a religious organization from engaging in religious and other related activities or continuing to operate in the discharge of the organization’s foundational faith-based mission and purpose,” the text reads.

The law further specifies that a “declared state of disaster” does not grant governments leeway to limit religious activity.

Shutdowns inspired several proposals in the state legislature to keep churches open. A bill by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) to forbid “a government agency or public official” from closing places of worship just took immediate effect on Wednesday. Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 27, a proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit governments from limiting religious services, passed both chambers and awaits a citizen vote in the next general election.

HB 525 is interpretably the strongest one of these proposals to pass the legislature. It specifically applies to all government entities, even noting public universities, special districts, and the State Bar of Texas by name. The law also paves the way for citizen lawsuits against public leaders that violate it, waiving governmental immunity and empowering the attorney general to aid or bring civil action against them.

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Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) introduced a bill that may have matched Shaheen’s in strength, but it died without a hearing in committee. Tinderholt’s bill would have prohibited both the governor and local governments from issuing any “executive order, proclamation, or regulation related to a declared state of disaster” that interferes with the operation of a religious organization.

While Tinderholt’s bill died in committee, the others found ample support once they reached the floor. SJR 27 passed the Senate with 11 Democratic votes before passing the House with 26 Democratic votes. HB 525 passed on a bipartisan vote as well but with a slimmer margin of victory in the House, garnering only 16 Democratic votes.

Opponents said both in committee and on the floor that the bills could prevent local governments from enforcing important day-to-day safety laws like occupancy or fire codes. Dallas City Councilman Lee Kleinman said certain disasters, such as tornadoes, render buildings unsafe for use and create a need for local government enforcement.

“If there is a disaster, we need to be able to enforce our health codes and building codes and things like that,” Kleinman said.

“Our biggest issue is if there’s a structural problem with a facility, we have to ask them to express their religion elsewhere.”

Rep. John Turner (D-Dallas) was perhaps the most outspoken critic of these bills on the floor. After joining other critics in warning that SJR 27 would jeopardize capacity codes, Turner attempted to carve out exceptions in Sanford’s bill to allow government activity that serves a compelling state interest.

State Sens. Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), Sarah Eckhardt (D-Austin), and Borris Miles (D-Houston) were the only three senators to vote against HB 525.

Statewide officials avoided shutdowns of religious organizations in Texas. Abbott’s executive orders have exempted houses of faith, and the state attorney general opined in July that religious institutions could legally disobey local shutdowns.

Church closures were mostly issued by county judges and mayors instead. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins banned in-person worship services in April of 2020. Outgoing Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price issued an emergency declaration that made it a citable offense to fully open churches. McKinney also had a stay-at-home order that included churches, though a lawsuit quickly ended it. Cameron County landed in legal trouble as well after a religious school refused to comply with a countywide closure order.

Texas houses of faith enjoy broad protections under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which forbids government bodies from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion. However, an exception exists for government actions taken with a compelling interest. Shaheen’s bill does not include this exception.


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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.