Texas pastors sue for right to hold services for parishioners

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Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on March 24 issued a 'stay home, work safe' order closing non-essential businesses and barring churches from holding in-person prayer services

Churches continue to push back against orders to curtail their services during the coronavirus epidemic.

A group of three pastors and a controversial conservative activist have filed suit asking the Texas Supreme Court to strike down a stay-at-home order in Harris County as unconstitutional for barring churches from holding in-person services, according to MailOnline.

The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus was filed March 31 by activist Dr. Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez. They argued that Harris County Executive Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order violates the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls.

A writ of mandamus, as defined by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, is a directive from a court to a lower government official ordering the official to fulfill their official duties or correct an abuse.

Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order went into effect on March 24, ordering the closure of non-essential businesses, prohibiting public or private gatherings and requiring residents to stay indoors except for essential activities. Pastors are allowed to minister to worshipers “in individual settings, so long as social distance protocols are followed. Religious and worship services may only be provided by video and teleconference.”

The suit filed by Bustamante, of the City on a Hill Church, Garcia, of the Power of Love Church,  Valdez, of World of Faith Center of Houston, and Dr. Hotze, who runs a wellness clinic, contends that Hidalgo’s order infringes on the religious liberty of pastors to minister to their parishioners.

According to the filing, on March 30 Bustamante was cited by Houston police for breaking social distancing guidelines and threatened with a $1,000 fine.  

“If the order is allowed to remain in place, the harm to individuals, businesses, the general public, people of faith, and the fundamental rights guaranteed to Harris County residents under the United States and Texas Constitutions would be impossible to undo,” the petition states.

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