Pastors sue to stop Texas judge's stay-at-home order prohibiting church gatherings

The U.S. and Texas flags wave in the wind Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, on Nov. 9, 2002.
The U.S. and Texas flags wave in the wind Kyle Field in College Station, Texas, on Nov. 9, 2002. | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Pastors are suing a Texas county judge over a stay-at-home order that they believe violates their religious freedom right to continue holding church services. Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott clarified that churches can open during the coronavirus pandemic as “essential services.”

A petition to the Texas Supreme Court on Monday was filed by Houston attorney Jared Woodfill on behalf of three local pastors and conservative activist Steve Hotze, the CEO of Conservative Republicans of Texas.

The petition seeks to stop an order by elected Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo enacted last month that instructs county residents to stay in their homes except for essential travel to the grocery store and when commuting to work for essential employees. The order required all nonessential businesses to close, including churches. 

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“Relators and those similarly situated are having their constitutional rights and the constitutional rights of their congregants continuously infringed upon as long as Judge Hidalgo’s Order is allowed to stay in place,” the legal filing reads.

According to the plaintiffs, Hidalgo’s order on March 24 imposes fines and even incarceration for individuals who operate non-essential businesses, congregate outside residences, operate a gun store or attend in-person religious services.  

“If the Order is allowed to remain in place, the harm to individuals, businesses, the general public, people of faith, and the fundamental rights guaranteed to Harris County residents under the United States and Texas Constitutions would be impossible to undo,” the petition argues. 

“Emergency mandamus relief is necessary from this Court to prevent Judge Hidalgo’s draconian, unconstitutional Order from further harming and infringing upon fundamental rights guaranteed to those living in Harris County, Texas.”

In an online video, Hotze said that the First Amendment dictates that “we have the right to practice our religion freely and we also have the right to peacefully assemble.”

“It doesn’t stay anything about whether or not you are sick or well, whether or not you can meet to do these things,” Hotze, the CEO of the Hotze Health & Wellness Center and Hotze Vitamins and Hotze Pharmacy, said. 

“If a church wants to have online services, that is their business to do that. But if we want to meet, that is our choice, not the choice of the government. It’s tyranny for the government to impose this upon us. That is why I oppose it.”

According to Woodfill, Hotze is joined in the lawsuit by pastors whose “rights have been clearly violated by Hidalgo’s unconstitutional order.” Those pastors are Juan Bustamante of City on a Hill Church in Houston, George Garcia of The Power of Love Church in Houston and David Valdez of the World Faith Center of Houston. 

“It is even more egregious and draconian when you consider the fact that if you are a pastor and choose to hold a service, you are looking at a $1,000 fine and up to 1 year in jail,” Woodfill said. “If you are an individual and choose to go to church, you are looking at a $1,000 fine and up to one year in jail. That is Harris County today.”

“That's why they have decided to take a stand,” he added. “They have requested the [Texas] Supreme Court look at this on an emergency basis and hold this order to be unconstitutional.” 

Woodfill said that the legal standard requires there to be a compelling government interest. The petition to the Supreme Court outlines how coronavirus compares to the flu and other causes of death to “put it all in perspective” and determine whether Hidalgo’s order is “narrowly tailored enough to meet this compelling governmental interest.” 

“When a judge decides to trample on fundamental freedoms and liberties that hundreds of thousands of people have given their lives for us to enjoy, that is something that we have to take extremely seriously,” Woodfill said. 

He added that he hopes that a ruling in their favor will send a clear message to other judges across the state who decide to implement similar orders.

Two days after the lawsuit was filed, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton issued joint guidance defining religious services as “essential services” under an executive order signed by Abbott calling on Texans to obey social distancing guidelines. 

“If religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, they should be conducted consistent with the Guidelines from the President and the [Centers for Disease Control] by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the joint guidance reads. 

CDC guidelines call for people to avoid gatherings of 10 people or more.

KHOU points out that although Harris and other Texas counties have banned church services, Abbott’s executive order overrides "any conflicting order issued by local officials," including those related to religious services. 

Woodfill told KHOU11 that there are plans to file lawsuits in Montgomery, Fort Bend and Galveston counties as well. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner spoke out against the idea of allowing religious services during the coronavirus pandemic. In Texas, there are over 4,600 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Thursday afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s Coronavirus Resource Center. 

In Harris County, there have been six coronavirus-related deaths and at least 847 confirmed cases. 

"If you're engaging in socializing, hugging, hand-clapping, sitting next to one another, then you are putting yourself in harm's way," Turner said Wednesday, according to KHOU. "I don't care who tells you to go in there. Exercise some common sense."

"This is not the time to change course when you're still in the midst of the storm. And I know the faith-based community understands that. So, you know, I shouldn't have to tell you that if there's a building on fire, don't go into the building."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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