Texas City Backtracks, Changes Order Prohibiting In-Person Religious Services

Michael W. Chapman | March 31, 2020 | 10:04am EDT
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(Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) -- A Texas city north of Dallas quickly amended its "Mandatory Stay-at-Home Order," which "prohibited" in-person religious gatherings, after receiving a letter from the First Liberty Institute detailing how the city order apparently violated CDC guidelines, state law, and the First Amendment Free Exercise Clause. 

"City officials in McKinney, Texas today [Mar. 27] altered its mandatory stay-at-home order to allow religious services that are consistent with the CDC’s 15-day guidelines," said the First Liberty Institute, a public interest law firm, in a statement that day.

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(Getty Images)

Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty, said, “We are grateful to McKinney city officials who responded quickly and appropriately to ensure their policies are both consistent with the Constitution and the CDC’s guidelines."

“During this challenging time, we need to see more of this kind of cooperation between government officials and the religious community," said Berry. "We continue to advise religious institutions to follow the CDC’s 15-day guidelines, but we all look forward to the day the faith community can again meet together, in person.”

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Under the revised order, McKinney residents are allowed to participate in religious services that follow CDC guidelines. This includes services by video, teleconference, or by other means that include social distancing. 

The initial Stay-At-Home Order issued on March 26 listed "Prohibited Activities." These were "in-person religious gatherings" and "all elective medical, surgical and dental procedures."

George Fuller, the Democratic mayor of McKinney, Texas. (Screenshot, FNC)
George Fuller, the Democratic mayor of McKinney, Texas. (Screenshot, FNC)

The order allowed people to go to work at "essential" businesses, which included healthcare, government, infrastructure, restaurants, retailers and suppliers, news media, childcare, and non-profits/social services."

As explained in the First Liberty Institute Mar. 27 letter to McKinney Mayor George Fuller, "McKinney’s Disaster Declaration specifically targets religious services for special restrictions. First, it limits religious services to video or teleconferencing only but does not enforce such a restriction against any other entity. See generally Disaster Declaration § 7; see, e.g., id. § 6 (allowing McKinney City Council meetings to proceed in person and requiring teleconferencing only when 'possible')."

Initial Stay-at-Home Order for McKinney, Texas, issued on March 26 and revised on March 27..
Initial Stay-at-Home Order for McKinney, Texas, issued on March 26 and revised on March 27..

"As a result, the Disaster Declaration uniquely handicaps churches from developing innovative ways to provide religious services consistent with social distancing guidelines," states the letter.  "For example, some churches across the country organized drive-in services that comply with all applicable social distancing guidelines."

"Restricting services only to video and teleconferencing precludes such innovative solutions and weighs most heavily on places of worship lacking the expertise or technological infrastructure necessary to provide religious services by video or teleconference," said First Liberty Institute. "McKinney could accomplish its interest in reducing the spread of COVID19 by requiring religious services to comply with applicable social distancing guidelines -- just as it does for other activities -- but without dictating the method churches must use to comply."

Michael Berry, general counsel, First Liberty Institute.  (FLI)
Michael Berry, general counsel, First Liberty Institute. (FLI)

The letter further noted that the Stay-At-Home Order restricted churches "to a strict ten-person staff limit" but no such limitation was placed on other groups engaging in similar activity. 

"Restaurants providing drive through or take out service, for example, are not limited to ten in-person staff," reads the letter. "Childcare services and news media are exempt entirely and suffer no staff limitations."

"To illustrate, for the purposes of preventing the spread of COVID-19, a church staff broadcasting a church service is no different than a news station’s staff broadcasting a news program," said the First Liberty Institute.

Near the letter's conclusion, the Institute said it would "take all necessary action, including litigation, to ensure that McKinney complies with the law. Yet, as stated above, our intent in writing is to encourage McKinney to continue to be a place that welcomes people of faith and the institutions that serve them. Our sincere hope is that you will amend the Disaster Declaration such that it no longer violates the Constitution, federal, and state law."

The Order was amended that afternoon, March 27. 

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