Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged the Texas Supreme Court to protect Harris County residents from the spread of COVID-19 by allowing a public health order banning mass gatherings to remain in place without exemptions for houses of worship or other religious services.
Americans United filed an amicus brief with the court today that explains it is not only permissible for Harris County to include houses of worship and religious services in its temporary ban of large, in-person gatherings, but it would be unconstitutional to exempt religious gatherings from the order.
The U.S. and Texas Constitutions make clear that religious exemptions can be granted only if they won’t cause harm to others. A religious exemption from Harris County's order would endanger the public health because COVID-19 can spread as easily at religious gatherings as it does at secular gatherings, and it can spread well beyond the people who participate in these events. An exemption also would unconstitutionally grant special privileges to religious activities.
“We appreciate the difficulty that these public health orders pose for all of us, including those who find solace in religious services during such challenging times,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “But this virus doesn’t discriminate – it endangers people whether they gather for religious or secular purposes, and it puts entire communities at risk. Harris County’s public health order does not violate religious freedom; it ensures religious freedom is not misused to risk people’s lives. We applaud the faith communities who are finding creative new ways to worship together virtually. We will get through this crisis together, even if not in person.”
In addition to filing today’s brief in the Texas Supreme Court, Americans United has called on the governors and public health officials of Kansas, Michigan and New Mexico to stop exempting worship services and other religious gatherings from their executive orders that prohibit the public from gathering in large groups. These religious exemptions not only pose a significant risk to the public health, but they violate the Constitution’s promise of church-state separation, which demands that religious and secular gatherings be treated equally.
“The constitutional guarantee of religious freedom protects the right to practice the faith of one’s choice,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United. “It also protects others from being harmed in the name of this precious freedom. Harris County’s order respects both public health and religious freedom.”
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.