Fact Check: Yes, Texas' governor has deemed religious services essential amid pandemic

Devon Link, USA TODAY

The claim: Texas' governor has deemed religious services essential amid coronavirus outbreak

Conservative political news website The Daily Signal published an article April 1 claiming Texas' governor had added religious gatherings to his list of essential services. The choice to allow in-person religious services to proceed  seemed suspicious to some users on Facebook, as many local leaders in the state had ordered otherwise.

On March 31, Gov. Greg Abbott did, in fact, issue an executive order adding religious worship to the state's list of essential services.

What is and isn’t allowed for religious services

Although the order allows worship services, Abbott mandates religious leaders employ remote means for worship whenever possible, and his office published guidance on measures to be followed for in-person worship.

“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,” the order reads.

Guidance for Houses of Worship During the COVID-19 Crisis, a joint effort with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, requires that in-person worship follow the White House's coronavirus guidelines. The president’s guidelines include instructing sick people to stay at home, maintaining appropriate distance between people, practicing good hygiene and frequently sanitizing shared spaces and high-touch surfaces.

Citing detailed guidance from the CDC, Abbott's and Paxton’s guidance also states that some houses of worship "must" avoid large gatherings at the discretion of local government depending upon the level of community transmission.

“Texas is a big state and the transmission rate of COVID-19 varies in different communities,” the joint guidance explains. “If a community is experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19, then the houses of worship in that community should cancel all in-person gatherings of any size.”

Abbott’s order supersedes local orders restricting religious gatherings

Before Abbott published the order, many local leaders had set forth their own policies for religious gatherings during the outbreak.

“I was surprised, just because there’s such a need for big groups not to gather, and because houses of worship seem to be doing such a really good job of handling services remotely,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the American-Statesman on April 1.

Adler, who issued a stay-at-home order for Austin, also said resuming large gatherings could increase the spread of COVID-19 and send the wrong message to Texans that the risk of spreading the coronavirus had lessened.

Abbott’s directive forced some localities, like Nueces County, which had previously ordered religious services livestreamed, to amend their policies.

On April 2, Nueces County issued an amended order to include religious worship as an essential service and recommended religious leaders employ drive-in-style means to allow congregants to worship from the safety of their vehicles.The order requires that drive-in worship attendees respect social distancing and maintain a car length distance from one another.

Worship practices are changing across the country

Other states across the country have utilized various approaches as they consider religious liberties alongside the public health imperative of preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Abbott’s order comes as several religious leaders have been arrested for defying social distancing orders.

On March 30, megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne was arrested in Florida for holding two Sunday services with hundreds of congregants.

On March 31, Rev. Tony Spell was arrested in Louisiana for repeatedly holding services with nearly 1,000 attendees, in violation of the state’s 50-person gathering limit.

“Instead of showing the strength and resilience of our community during this difficult time, Mr. Spell has chosen to embarrass us for his own self-promotion,” Central Police Chief Roger Corcoran said in a Central City Facebook post.