Texas churches shouldn’t be exempt from mask order, FFRF insists

Practice Distancing

The state of Texas needs to revoke its ill-advised mask-wearing exemption for churchgoers, the Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging.

The recently issued Executive Order GA-29 admirably requires Texans to wear face masks in most public places, but unfortunately makes an exception for churches.

“The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause ‘mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. “Exempting religious facilities from the state’s mask order violates this basic stricture.”

The order is even more problematic due to the culpability of churches in spreading the coronavirus. Since the beginning of this pandemic, houses of worship have repeatedly been shown to be COVID-19 hotbeds. The Lone Star State itself provides a salutary warning. In one Texas church alone, 50 congregants and staff members, including the pastor and his wife, tested positive. That church, Calvary Chapel of San Antonio, reopened in May and even though ushers, greeters and leaders of the children’s ministry wore face masks, about half of the churchgoers did not. Pastor Ron Arbaugh says he regrets announcing that congregants could hug one another.

And these are grim times for the state — because a virus brooks no exceptions.

“The number of confirmed cases has risen from the 230,346 previously reported to the 258,658 listed in Sunday’s report,” states a July 13 article on a Texas news site. “Fatality tolls increased from the 2,918 reported on Thursday to the 3,192 recorded Sunday.”

Many religious facilities are uniquely susceptible to spreading the disease and consequently should be held to at least the same mask-wearing standards as similar secular facilities, FFRF emphasizes. Worship services usually require people to sit together in an enclosed space for an extended period of time. The choirs, singing, greetings, socializing, potlucks and indoor events are all huge risk factors during a pandemic. Even when conducted under social-distancing measures, this type of gathering creates a high risk of coronavirus transmission.

Governments already regularly place limits on worship gatherings that jeopardize public health, FFRF stresses. For instance, the government prohibits churches from cramming too many people into a building in violation of fire codes and also requires that church buildings comply with necessary building codes. The congregants’ right to gather and worship is limited by the government’s need to protect those congregants from being trampled to death and the community from a fire. Requiring masking due to a pandemic is even more crucial.

That’s why to protect the health and safety of all Texas residents, FFRF is asking that Executive Order GA-29’s mask-wearing requirements be extended to churches. The coronavirus does not relent based on the type of building one enters; to be effective, neither must Texas’ response to the virus.

“Texas deserves a bad bill of health until it lifts this exemption,” adds FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The exception that state officials are making based on religious pandering could end up harming a whole lot of Texans.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,300 members and a chapter in Texas. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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