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Texas govt designates religious services ‘essential’ during coronavirus panic

The governor's executive order explicitly allows for public Masses, but at least two Texas bishops insist on continuing to forbid them.
Thu Apr 2, 2020 - 10:46 am EST
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Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas. Tom Fox-Pool / Getty Images

AUSTIN, Texas, April 2, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The state of Texas is treating churches and religious services as “essential” amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As “essential services,” religious services are allowed to take place in unlocked churches accessible to all.

“‘Essential services’ shall consist of everything listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in its Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, Version 2.0, plus religious services conducted in churches, congregations, and houses of worship,” Texas governor Greg Abbott stated in an executive order issued Tuesday.

While encouraging all essential services to be provided “through remote telework,” Abbott said that 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 executive order mentioned not only the “providing” of essential services, for instance a priest saying Mass, but also the “obtaining.” Accordingly, Catholics are now in a position to go to church and receive the sacraments, as long as due precautions are taken.

“This executive order does not prohibit people from accessing essential services or engaging in essential daily activities, such as going to the grocery store or gas station, providing or obtaining other essential services,” Abbott wrote.

All dioceses in Texas have already canceled public Masses. The bishops seem intent on keeping the relevant decrees issued in mid-March in effect.

Bishop Edward J. Burns of Dallas acknowledged Governor Abbott’s executive order issued on March 31, saying that “in consultation with local authorities, and out of a desire to help combat the virus and limit the flock from exposure or risk,” public Masses “remain temporarily suspended.”

He added that scheduled confessions, “which can cause groups to form large lines, remain temporarily suspended. Individual requests in person can be responded to by priests.” Burns did not explain how people are capable of practicing social distancing at a grocery store but not while waiting for confession.

Even public adoration is not allowed to take place, since it might “attract large numbers.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler published an update on April 1 but did not explicitly refer to the executive order of March 31.

“Because we must continue to remain isolated and do our part to slow the spread of this terrible disease, and following the guidelines and orders from our local, state, and national leaders, the measures taken in the March 17 decree remain in effect until further notice,” Strickland said.

Texas is not the first state to consider religious services essential. The Ohio Department of Health issued an order on March 22, taking effect on March 24, and scheduled to last until April 6, that allows churches to remain open.

“Religious facilities, entities and groups and religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals,” are listed by the state as “essential businesses and operations” which still may be accessed.

While all businesses and operations deemed by the state of Ohio to be “non-essential” were ordered to stop, a fairly lengthy list of exceptions included religious entities. Another exception was organizations providing charitable and social services.

Even though “religious gatherings” are explicitly permitted by the order of the Ohio Department of Health, the requirements of social distancing would still have to be practiced, just like in Texas.

This includes “maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.”

Legally, public Masses would be a problem neither in Texas nor in Ohio. Nevertheless, the bishops of both states never revoked their decisions to forbid all public Masses.


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