On March 31, Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-14 (EO), which says residents of Texas must minimize in-person contact with people outside the same household. While the Governor did not refer to the EO as a "stay at home" or "shelter in place" order, the language is clear that it prohibits people from going to non-essential businesses. You can read the Governor’s full EO here.
The order states that "every person in Texas shall, except where necessary to provide or obtain essential services, minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household." One key distinction with this EO is that it specifically lists "religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship" as essential services. However, the order also asks that even essential services (including religious services) be conducted remotely whenever possible.
Regarding religious services the EO states, "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 CDC by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, and by implementing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19." Additionally, on April 1, Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton released a document of "Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis." You can read that document here.
This EO takes effect state-wide which means it applies even in counties and cities that do not have “stay at home” or “shelter in place” orders in effect. Significantly, the EO also specifically states that it supersedes any conflicting order from a county official. This means that the Governor's EO supersedes any local order that does not list a religious service as an essential service. The EO also supersedes the Governor’s March 18 Order which did not specifically mention churches. The EO takes effect at 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, April 2, and is scheduled to remain in effect through April 30.
The purpose of this article is to help explain the legal ramifications of Executive Order GA-14 for churches, rather than instructing any church in what it must do with regard to religious services. Although understanding the law is of vital importance for church leaders, those leaders are also encouraged to consider how God would have them shepherd their congregation, honor governmental authority, and care for their community. Often, answering those questions can provide better guidance than a legal analysis.
Attorney John Litzler directs the church law division of Christian Unity Ministries in San Antonio. He also serves as a BGCT legal consultant to assist Texas Baptist churches in understanding various legal issues.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information and a general understanding of the law and does not constitute specific legal advice. By utilizing the Texas Baptist website, you understand that there is no attorney/client relationship between you/your church and the author or between you/your church and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. This article should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state with the specifics of your situation.