The Texas Legislature does not convene until Jan. 12, 2021. But in September lawmakers and public policy advisers got a head start on discussing the issues legislators should address during a forum hosted by Texas Values, a conservative public policy advocacy organization. Speakers discussed recurring issues of concern to Christians, like education and human dignity. But new conflicts have arisen at the confluence of constitutional liberties and the government’s authority during a global pandemic.
“I think the lesson we have learned is, if we don’t have specific legislation that makes it clear what the limitations of local government are, some of these local officials are unwilling to be held accountable,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values.
“It’s gone too far,” he said. “[Churches] feel like they were duped. I think you’ll find some churches that will never close their doors again.”
Texas churches initially extended grace and agreed to comply with government shut-down orders Saenz said. But the sometimes-contradictory mandates issued by state, county and municipal governments became a source of confusion and consternation for many Texans.
Even federal attempts at financial assistance for businesses that were forced to shut down were initially problematic. Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen was prepared to challenge the Small Business Administration’s exclusion of churches from the Paycheck Protection Program. The loan program offered forgivable loans to businesses that kept employees on the payroll during the government ordered shut-downs.
“Cottonwood Creek was at the ready to help churches across the country by being a party to a lawsuit against the federal government regarding SBA regulations that would have disqualified religious institutions from participating in PPP loans,” said Scott Sanford, a Cottonwood Creek pastor and Texas Representative. “The Trump administration was able to fix the issue regulatorily prior to the need to file a lawsuit.”
The U.S. and Texas constitutions prohibit government restrictions on the exercise of religion, but government authorities either ignored or were ignorant of those rights when they issued contravening mandates in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Saenz said.
By late September, churches across the nation were either defying, acquiescing to or suing governing entities over restrictions on church attendance and in-person schooling.
In Washington D.C., Capitol Hill Baptist Church, an SBC congregation, filed a lawsuit against D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the District of Columbia for declining the church’s application to meet outside for worship services. Bowser’s executive order prohibits churches from meeting in their buildings and limits outside worship services to less than 100 people. CHBC has 850 members.
In the lawsuit filed September 22, CHBC claims Bowser’s prohibition violates First Amendment rights of speech, religious exercise and assembly. It also claims Bowser violated her own executive order by permitting and attending mass protests in the District.
According to the lawsuit, when asked about the discrepancy, Bowser said, “‘First Amendment protests and large gatherings are not the same’ [because] ‘in the United States of America, people can protest.’”
The church responded, “In the United States of American, people can gather for worship under the First Amendment as well.”
During the pandemic Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and First Liberty, a Plano law firm that defends religious liberty, have issued letters warning governing entities against issuing orders that go beyond their authority. For example, on September 4, Paxton warned Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino and the county’s health authority against applying an order prohibiting in-person instruction at religious schools. Paxton said the order violates the Texas Constitution and the Religious Liberty and Restoration Act.
Similar actions by the Attorney General and attorneys at First Liberty have resolved some constitutional conflicts, but Saenz believes the Texas legislature must pass laws that limit the authority of local governments during a crisis or else the problem will persist.
“I do think that continued education about the proper role of government and their limitations is helpful. [But] we’ve been left no choice. The only way to make sure that local government does not violate the rights of churches and businesses and individuals like they’ve been doing this year is to have specific laws that say they cannot,” said Saenz.
The Texas Values forum carved out two sessions for presentations about sex education. The discussions highlighted battles over “hypersexualized” sex education curriculum being introduced at the state and local level. State Sen. Angela Paxton, R- McKinney, said parents have a responsibility to educate themselves on the sex education programs taught in their school districts.
Paxton successfully sponsored a bill in 2019 that requires more transparency in the development of sex education curriculum. Still, she admonished parents to remain vigilant because school districts continue to develop curriculum without community input or even parental knowledge.
Recent successful efforts by pro-active communities and the State Board of Education at thwarting the incorporation of graphic sex education curriculum into local school districts and in textbooks should prove an encouragement to others Saenz said.
Texas lawmakers could also address another ideological battle taking place on public school and university campuses that is shutting out female athletes from competitions.
The Fair Play Act (see sidebar) would require student athletes to compete on teams that correspond with their biological sex, not their gender identity. Texas Rep. Valoree Swanson, R – Spring, and Matt Sharp, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, discussed the need for such legislation.
Reading from Idaho’s Fairness in Women’s Sports Act passed in March, Swanson enumerated the physiological advantages male athletes have over women. The law cited a Duke University study: “The biological differences between females and males, especially as it relates to natural levels of testosterone, ‘explain the male and female secondary sex characteristics which develop during puberty and have life-long effects, including those most important for success in sport: categorically different strength, speed, and endurance.’”
“It’s truly a fairness factor,” Swanson told the forum audience.
Lawmakers could also address school closures forced by local coronavirus mitigation guidelines. Legislators must try to reconcile the school district concerns with the transmissibility of the disease among young people and the advantages of in-person education said Saenz.
Getting a Hearing
What bills eventually receive a hearing in the Texas House of Representatives will largely depend on the new Speaker of the House. The Speaker holds sway over what legislation makes it to the floor for a debate and vote.
Rep. Matt Schaefer, R – Tyler, would not speculate about who that might be but said if the Republicans maintain a strong majority after the Nov. 3 elections, he hopes they can appoint a “center right” Speaker who is pro-life and supports Second Amendment liberties and small government.
“Law makers are sensitive to the demands of the people who elect them. If a greater number of Christians will communicate with their State Representatives and Senators, they will get the message,” Schaefer told the TEXAN. “Far too many Christians ignore politics, but then complain about political decisions that are hostile to Christian values. Far too many pastors cannot even name their state representative, much less know them personally. I can tell you that anytime a pastor calls me it has my full attention because I know he represents the thoughts of a lot of people. Talk to your elected officials. It matters.”
As of late September, Texas lawmakers had not decided whether the 87th Session will be conducted in-person or remotely. Or, if in-person, whether constituents would be allowed in the Capitol building.
“I firmly believe that we have to have a legislative session that is no different than how we’ve operated before,” Saenz said. “Denying people the ability to appear in person in hearings will be extremely damaging to the legislative process. It will leave the public feeling shut out.”