87th LegislatureState HouseProposals to Keep Churches Open During Disasters Face Texas House Committee

“If churches are considered non-essential in our state, people will starve to death spiritually,” said Pastor Jorge Tovar.
March 29, 2021
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“Our nation’s declaration clearly states we are given freedom by God,” state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) said Thursday night while presenting his House Bill (HB) 525.

“It is our job as legislators to protect these rights. HB 525 addresses this by designating all religious organizations and their activities as essential.”

A meeting of the State Affairs Committee of the Texas House ran long after hearing testimony and argument on a slew of bills meant to protect faith organizations from closure during disasters, an issue that rose to the forefront when cities and counties across Texas teased and occasionally implemented mandatory shutdowns of churches.

Shaheen’s bill would declare faith groups essential at all times and permanently prevent government interference in their activities. It also waives governmental immunity in such cases and enables injured parties to sue for injunctive and declaratory relief. State Reps. Jeff Leach (R-Allen), Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), and Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) presented kindred legislation that varied in scope.

Joined by some lobbyists and regular citizens, a number of pastors from across the state took the lectern to support the proposals.

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“If churches are considered non-essential in our state, people will starve to death spiritually,” said Pastor Jorge Tovar, speaking on behalf of his Jordan River Church and advocacy group Texas Values.

Conservative-leaning social science research group Austin Institute gave statistical arguments for keeping churches open, saying that depression, anxiety, and suicide occur at lower rates for churchgoers.

“As you as a committee debate how and where to draw prudent lines… [know] that church involvement has profound public health benefits,” executive director Kevin Stuart said.

Few testifiers spoke against the proposals. The only government official to testify against Leach’s House Joint Resolution (HJR) 72 and Shaheen’s HB 525 was Dallas City Councilman Lee Kleinman, speaking on behalf of the City of Dallas, who argued that the measures could keep cities from enforcing building codes for safety reasons.

“We must carefully balance the freedoms of faith-based organizations with our obligations to protect… the welfare of our residents,” Kleinman said.

“If there is a disaster, we need to be able to enforce our health codes and building codes and things like that… Our biggest issue is if there’s a structural problem with a facility, we have to ask them to express their religion elsewhere.”

Kleinman envisioned disasters like tornadoes — fairly regular in North Texas — that could render church buildings too dangerous to use. He took the floor to speak against both HJR 72 and HB 525 before committee Chair Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) reminded him that testifiers must limit their testimony to one bill at a time.

There is a crucial difference between the two proposals. HJR 72, a proposed constitutional amendment that if approved in the legislature would also have to be approved at the ballot box, simply says that “the state or a political subdivision of this state” cannot issue a law or rule that “prohibits or limits religious services.” HB 525 is broader: it states that the government may not “at any time, including during a declared state of disaster, 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.”

In other words, HJR 72 protects services, while HB 525 extends to all faith-based activities.

The committee also heard deliberation on Sanford’s HB 1239 and Tinderholt’s HB 1691, though the schedule of the hearing loaded much of the testimony and debate on the other two. Sanford’s HB 1239 would prohibit government agencies or public officials from closing places of worship. It does not mention religious activities. Tinderholt’s HB 1691 would prohibit government officials — naming the governor and “the presiding officer of the governing body of a political subdivision” specifically — from restricting the free exercise of religion, banning religious services, or limiting the operating hours of faith groups.

During discussions on both Sanford’s HB 1239 and Shaheen’s HB 525, committee member Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said she was concerned for schools in her district that rent space to churches and whether the proposals would require the schools to host them even during health shutdowns mandated by the school board. Sanford and later Shaheen both said that the law would not apply there because it wouldn’t affect rental agreements.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III (D-Brownsville) expressed sympathy for local government leaders that issued shutdowns as the pandemic first swelled last year but tempered his statement with respect for the role that faith groups played in pandemic recovery.

“I just want to be a little empathetic to folks making tough decisions that got information for the first time… In March or April, when we went outside, we thought we were gonna die,” Lucio said.

“When constituents come to me in dire need, I usually send them to my church.”

Though the House committee left all bills pending for the night, the other chamber of the legislature moved quickly on two twin bills. Senate Bill 26, a companion bill to Sanford’s HB 1239, and Senate Joint Resolution 27, companion to Leach’s HJR 72, both passed the Texas Senate on the same day 28 to 2.

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Isaiah Mitchell

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.