Governmental and political incompetence has infected the COVID 19 crisis at virtually every level in the official response to it. Thousands of people have died, and many more will die, as the federal response to the crisis continues to flounder like a fish out of water.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been on a fast-track to stay abreast of the federal response with his escalating incompetent response to the COVID crisis in this state. The governor’s incompetence was on full display with his latest “stay at home” order that he prefers to call “Executive Order No. GA-14 relating to statewide continuity of essential services and activities during the COVID-19 disaster.”
Abbott’s order about what constitutes “essential services” parrots the list of “essential services” spelled out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0. The DHS’s essential services include “services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship.”
Besides religious services, gun purchases have been designated as an “essential service” in Texas. However, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a county “stay-at-home” order that specifically restricted church services to video or teleconferencing and failed to designate gun shops as an “essential services” business.
Republican Activists Sue to Break Stay at Home Orders
Local Republican activist Steven Hotze, a longtime anti-LBGTQ activist who is hawking a high-priced vitamin concoction to prevent COVID infection, and several like-minded pastors immediately applied for a writ of mandamus for relief. The lawsuit asked the Texas Supreme Court to declare the Hidalgo order unconstitutional because it violates their First Amendment right to worship and Second Amendment right to purchase weapons.
Gov. Abbott has winked support for the Hotze’s lawsuit by publicly stating that while he respects the right of individual Texas counties to impose “strict” orders in response to the COVID crisis, those orders should not “conflict” with his GA-14 order.
The First Amendment has two clauses: the “establishment” clause which prohibits the government from establishing an official church and the “free exercise” clause that creates freedom to worship without governmental interference.
Limits on Religious Freedom
The right to religious freedom, we believe, necessarily entails a social responsibility to protect the welfare of the general community. For example, a pastor may have a First Amendment right to use poisonous snakes during a religious service inside a house of worship. That pastor does not enjoy a First Amendment protection to conduct religious services with venomous snakes on a busy street corner in a manner that creates a risk to passersby.
As Catherine Rampell put it in a July 2, 2015 Washington Post opinion piece:
“Constitutional and statutory protections of religious liberty give Americans the right to worship whomever they choose, however they like, on whatever day they like. But there are well-established limits to weaponizing those beliefs against your fellow man.”
That’s precisely what right-wing activist Hotze wants to do with the COVID 19 virus – he wants irresponsible churchgoers to have the unfettered right to gather and worship in close quarters at the expense of public safety. Hotze is known to support organizations that use religion to promote his right-wing political agenda. It may also be that Hotze has a particular disinterest in the potential COVID infection potential because a disproportionate number of the COVID victims are poor, black, and brown people.
Biblically Based Activist Not so Christian
This so-called “Christian conservative” has a history of discrimination. For example, he has spewed his peculiar belief that medical and child-care professionals have a right to refuse services to LBGTQ Texans. This ally of right-wing lunatic Dan Patrick has preaches that LGBTQ people are “undermining the Biblically-based moral values of our nation.”
These kinds of extreme, bigoted religious views put this nation in danger during this national crisis. Hotze and other churchgoers will stand in the pews, reveling in their religion only to leave the church and walk among the rest of society, potentially spreading a deadly virus. It is nothing short of unadulterated lunacy to believe that Hotze enjoys a constitutional protection to infect and kill other people by spreading the deadly COVID virus.
We respect both the First and Second Amendments. Still, just as the Second Amendment right to purchase and possess a weapon does not guarantee a gun owner to use that weapon in a manner that exposes others to risk, the First Amendment does not protect the weaponization of religious beliefs.
We don’t know what the Texas Supreme Court will do with Hotze’s frivolous mandamus petition. We can only hope the court will dismiss it into the trash bin where it belongs.