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Voters pass a constitutional amendment banning suspension of religious services

New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.
Florian Martin
Houston Public Media
New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

A state constitutional amendment that would ban governments from imposing restrictions on religious services and organizations passed Tuesday night, as part of a backlash against lockdowns earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

With all counties reporting, approval for Proposition 3 garnered more than 62% of the vote statewide.

Supporters of the measure say the purpose is to reinforce protections for religious services and organizations included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Texas' Freedom to Worship Law, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed in June.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said a groundswell of support from a religious conservative voting bloc helped lead to its passage.

“Given the strength of religious voters, especially in the Republican party, they don't want to see the state limit what the local houses of worship can do,” Rottinghaus said. “This was something they've been keen on making sure that they have the ability to operate through, even in a pandemic or any other kind of emergency.”

The amendment came in response to bans on in-person church services by counties in March of 2020. Caroline Mala Corbin, an expert on religious liberty at the University of Miami School of Law, said that the U.S. Supreme Court has traditionally ruled that worship services must be treated equally to other secular activities.

But federal courts have ruled against similar Texas laws in the past. When the legislature passed a law in the 1980s exempting religious but not secular publications from sales tax, the Supreme Court held that it violated the Establishment Clause.

"It was treating religion better than its secular counterpart,” Corbin said. “And arguably these laws, like the one Texas has, does the same thing. It's favoring large religious gatherings over other large secular gatherings like movies and concerts."

But she added that the rule will likely get in the way of counties and other local governments during a crisis.

"Given those restrictions, there's really no question that it's going to curtail the government's ability to protect the health of its citizenry," Corbin said. "Worship services, they can serve as super-spreader events, especially if you have people singing in poorly ventilated spaces."
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