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March 31, 2020

Abbott Could Ignite Tempest with New Order
that Gives Preachers Bypass in Virus Battle

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

Governor Greg Abbott set himself up for a hailstorm of criticism on Tuesday when he implemented a statewide policy that's a weaker version of local isolation mandates with a massive loophole that appears to give Texas churches the green light to hold traditional worship services in defiance of social distancing guidelines designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas surpassed 3,700, Abbott appeared to be capitulating to growing pressure for a stronger and more consistent approach at the state level in the fight against the deadly disease with the executive order that closes schools and businesses that don't provide essential goods and services until early May.

Abbott has been under increasing fire for lagging behind local leaders in the state's major cities and counties in the fight to curtail the coronavirus that's already killed more than 40 constituents in the early stages of the outbreak here. But the Republican governor appeared to be undermining the new decree's central objective by essentially invalidating restrictions in Harris County and other locations that prohibited public gatherings with more than 10 people in a move that flies in the face of efforts that other southern states have taken for the sake of protecting the public health.

The timing of the exception made it appear like Abbott was siding with longtime conservative activist Steve Hotze and a group of Houston-area pastors that asked the state Supreme Court this week to overturn a temporary ban on large public assemblies that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo instituted last week.

Hotze and his allies in the legal challenge contend that the Hidalgo order is a blatant violation of constitutional rights regarding religious liberties and gun rights as well. The local directive in the state's largest county did not include weapons sales as essential services like restrictions in some Texas jurisdictions have done.

At least one of the ministers who teamed up with Hotze in the petition for high court intervention says that Harris County sheriff's deputies had threatened to arrest him for ignoring the order that has prompted many other churches in Houston and other parts of the state to conduct services online.

The Hidalgo order is in line with restrictions that have culminated in criminal cases against preachers in Florida and Louisiana. Ronald Howard-Browne, the leader of a megachurch in Tampa, was jailed on Monday after being charged with unlawful public assembly and violations of emergency rules that aim to safeguard public health in Hillsborough County in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Howard-Browne was accused of creating a dangerous environment with a service on Sunday that drew an estimated 500 parishoners to The River at Tampa Bay church.

Pastor Mark Anthony Spell was cited on Tuesday for misdemeanor violations in connection with a half-dozen services that he's conducted in the past two weeks at the Life Tabernacle Church outside Baton Rouge despite an order that Governor Jon Bell Edwards issued restricting gatherings to 50 people or less in his state.

Medical experts have warned that large public gatherings not only risk the lives of people in attendance but countless others who could be infected in the communities where they reside if and after they're exposed.

Hotze has been one of the most prominent leaders on the Republican hard right in Texas for several decades. A medical doctor, Hotze has led the fight against LGBTQ rights at the Capitol, confronting GOP lawmakers outside the House and Senate chambers at times when he's perceived them to be adversaries.

Hotze has been highly-effective in the formation and touting of conservative candidate slates in state and local elections.

But Abbott has been viewed as a lukewarm conservative at best in Hotze supporter circles - and he runs the risk of being accused of pandering to religious zealots and putting the public health in unnecessary danger with the latest in a series of executive edicts in the midst of the worst pandemic in more than a century.

The Abbott order that defines gatherings in "houses of worship" as "essential services" will be in effect for four weeks with an expiration date of April 30 unless the governor decides to extend it at that time. Here is the excerpt from the gubernatorial directive that could trigger a major backlash.

In accordance with guidance from DSHS Commissioner Dr. Hellerstedt, and to achieve the goals established by the President to reduce the spread of COVID-19, every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.

“Essential services” shall consist of everything listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0, plus religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship.  Other essential services may be added to this list with the approval of the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM). 

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