Texas Pastors Sue Judge Over Stay-at-Home Order That Closed Their Churches March 31, 2020

Texas Pastors Sue Judge Over Stay-at-Home Order That Closed Their Churches

Three Texas pastors and a Republican activist known for his anti-LGBTQ views have petitioned the Texas Supreme Court, asking them to rule Harris County’s stay-at-home order unconstitutional.

In a bizarre irony, activist Steven Hotze was in the news just over a week ago for recommending that people protect themselves from COVID-19 by, well, just not getting it. Now he’s taking aim at the precautions being put in place to encourage that exact outcome.

Hotze and his posse of preachers — Juan Bustamante, George Garcia, and David Valdez – argue that the stay-at-home order, put in place by Judge Lina Hidalgo, violates the First Amendment by placing restrictions on where and how church communities can meet for the duration of the crisis.

They also argue that Hidalgo’s order violates the Second Amendment, since gun retailers are not listed as “essential services.”

The stay-at-home order came into effect on March 24. It specifically limited religious services and worship to long-distance measures, like video broadcasting or teleconferencing, while making provisions for pastors to minister one-on-one to congregants in need. That wasn’t good enough for Bustamante, evidently; on Sunday he received a notice of violation, citing his City on a Hill Church for violating social distancing requirements limiting groups to less than ten.

According to the writ:

On March 29, 2020, Relator Pastor Juan Bustamante was approached by a Houston Police Department Officer and threatened with a thousand dollar fine and incarceration if he did not stop preaching the gospel to his congregation.

Clever wording, there. Bustamante was not cited for preaching the gospel; he was cited for violating pandemic-specific ordinances regarding group gatherings. But this phrasing fits the Christian persecution narrative so much more seamlessly.

The attorney representing Hotze and the preachers, Jared Woodfill, argues in the document that Hidalgo’s order violates the law by restricting individual freedoms that the Constitution guarantees:

People of faith are prohibited from worshipping in person, most private businesses are prevented from operating, gun shops are ordered closed, and people are not allowed to associate together in groups — these are some of the individual freedoms Judge Hidalgo has chosen to sacrifice.

Woodfill and Hotze make such perfectly natural bedfellows, it’s amazing we haven’t seen them team up before. Hotze is a dedicated homophobe who’s known for likening gay people to termites eating away at America’s moral foundations and launching personal attacks against an openly gay mayoral candidate in Houston. Woodfill, meanwhile, waged a protracted (and ultimately failed) legal campaign against extending City of Houston employee spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

It seems like they’re fated to lose this fight as well.

According to constitutional law professor Peter Linzer from the University of Houston, Hidalgo’s order is reasonable and doesn’t prevent anybody from practicing their religion, even if it places limits on what makes that practice safe.

That is a distinction that any rational person should be able to recognize. There is a constitutional right to go to church, but that doesn’t mean it’s absolute. It’s not just a building, it’s not just its membership, it’s not just Sunday service. It’s pastoring and all the other things that go into the ministry — and all those things are still allowed.

Harris County’s First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard described the provisions as “necessary to deal with the extraordinary crisis” of COVID-19, and says that Hidalgo crafted her order very carefully to ensure that the freedom of religious practice was balanced against the dangers of large gatherings during a pandemic, encouraging churches to use technology to reach out to their congregants.

Hidalgo’s spokesman, Rafael Lemaitre, declined to discuss the specifics of the writ, but was very clear on one point:

Public health and science must drive our response, and the science is clear: if we fail to take adequate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, people will die. We continue to urge folks to take this seriously.

(Screenshot via YouTube)

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