Earlier this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that, “it is now time to open Texas 100%.” Citing the availability of vaccinations, reduced hospitalization rates and the healthy daily habits Texans have developed to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Abbott said state mandates are no longer needed. Abbott has issued Executive Order (EO) GA-34, which will rescind many of the Governor’s previous EOs. EO GA-34 removes all state-wide restrictions. This will allow every business in Texas to open at full capacity and remove any requirements to wear face coverings.
The requirements to wear face coverings and the limits on occupancy have never applied to worship services in Texas. Some churches, however, chose to voluntarily follow and implement practices to abide by the Governor’s EOs despite their exemption. Additionally, these restrictions have affected other areas of church ministry, parachurch organizations, and other non-church religious organizations. Here’s what churches and religious organizations should know about EO GA-34:
- EO GA-34 doesn’t take effect until next Wednesday, March 10. This means the restrictions on occupancy and the face covering mandate will still be in effect this coming Sunday. For churches that have been voluntarily following the restrictions previously in place, the delayed effective date of EO GA-34 means those churches have more time to consider how to handle their worship services moving forward. However, the time for church leaders to reanalyze their policies and procedures is now. Pastors and other church leaders are already receiving inquiries about whether their church will limit capacity or require masks after EO GA-34 takes effect.
- EO GA-34 “strongly encourages” Texans to use good-faith efforts to follow Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) health recommendations. Additionally, under EO GA-34, businesses and other establishments can still decide whether to impose occupancy restrictions or to require customers and guests to wear face coverings. While these decisions will be new for many businesses, these are the types of decisions church leaders have already been making for a year. Previously, Texas Baptist churches were asking, “Should our church voluntarily follow Texas’ restrictions for businesses in our community despite our exemption?” Now, Texas Baptist churches will be asking, “Should we leave certain protective procedures in place even though Texas is no longer requiring them of other businesses in our community?” The freedom for churches to decide how to conduct their worship services is a great blessing, but it is also a great responsibility. Pastors and church leaders should prayerfully consider whether their policies and procedures to prevent and reduce the transmission of COVID-19 should be revised.
- While there will no longer be a state-wide mandate for non-church religious organizations and parachurch organizations that have not been exempt from the previous EOs beginning March 10, it is important for these groups to know that some restrictions may still be imposed at a county level. Under EO GA-34, a county judge may implement restrictions in an “area with high hospitalizations.” An area with high hospitalizations is defined as any Trauma Service Area are greater than 15% of the beds for 7 straight days, County officials will have the authority to impose restrictions, but the restrictions cannot include a mask mandate and violation of the county rules cannot be punishable by a jail sentence.
- Public schools will continue to operate under minimum health safety protocols as established by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). TEA is expected to release updated guidance in light of EO GA-34 this week. Church daycares and other religiously affiliated schools are encouraged, but not required, to follow the TEA protocols for public schools.
You can read EO GA-34 in its entirety here.
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.