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Health leaders respond to proposed Texas bill outlawing closing places of worship during disasters

Senate Bill 26 looks to prevent government officials from closing places of worship even after a disaster has been declared, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

AUSTIN, Texas — This week, the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs approved a bill that would prohibit government leaders from closing places of worship in disaster declarations.

Senate Bill 26, co-authored by 13 Texas Republican senators, adds a key phrase Texas to regulations, "A government agency or public official may not issue an order that closes or has the effect of closing places of worship in this state or in a geographic area of this state."

The bill passed committee and will next be voted on by the state Senate body.

Health leaders in Travis County say the bill should not go forward.

"I think it's a mistake for us to pass the legislation, which prohibits the potential closure of religious services for future pandemics, because future pandemics may look much different," Dr. Mark Escott, who has led Austin-Travis County through the COVID-19 pandemic, said on Friday.

Dr. Escott noted the death rate for coronavirus has been low, but that may not be the case for any pandemics that may happen in the future.

"I don't think we should use this one to make decisions or limit our possibilities for the future," Escott said. "I think any of those discussions need to be a two-way communication between public health and the religious community so that we can mitigate the risk to spread while also minimizing the impact on on people's religious practice."

As the pandemic was getting underway in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered worship services as essential. That kept religious places open, but many decided to go virtual anyway.

"Many of the churches were proactive in closing early on and that we found that balance between public health and religious health, if you will," Dr. Escott said. "So I think that's that's a model for us in the future and that we should continue those efforts."

According to Stephanie Hayden-Howard, the director of Austin Public Health, churches have been helpful in getting congregations vaccinated quickly.

"We are working with the faith-based community to provide vaccines for them, for people that either attend church and/or live in that neighborhood," Hayden-Howard said.

SB26 passed through the Senate Committee on State Affairs on Wednesday, and will be taken up by the rest of the Texas Senate for approval. If approved by the Senate, it would then go to a Texas House committee.

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