As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and cases around Texas are on the rise, Attorney General Ken Paxton has been a one-man wrecking ball to safety and health measures championed by the state’s most populous counties.
Last week, Paxton sent a letter to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins saying that public health directives like limiting the number of attendees in places of worship or requiring masks to be worn in public violate orders from the state and governor. Judges in Bexar and Travis also received similar letters.
Jenkins acknowledged Paxton’s new ruling in a statement: “We intentionally modeled the public health guidelines based on the Governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed.”
Though COVID-19 cases are increasing around the state, in Dallas (as well as Houston) the numbers are plateauing. Many public health experts credit that outcome to the strong social distancing and stay-at-home orders in March and April.
Paxton, who was indicted by a grand jury in 2015 of felony securities fraud, made a point in his declaration to say that Dallas County’s guidelines infringed on religious liberty and were “overbearing government action.” For a number of progressive congregations in Dallas, the new ruling from Paxton is not changing their minds about resuming normal worship services.
Prior to the pandemic, the First Unitarian Church of Dallas with Reverend Daniel Kanter had hundreds of parishioners for their two weekly Sunday masses. The church is popular amongst progressives in Dallas for its longtime commitment to LGBTQ inclusion.
In a letter to parishioners posted to the church’s website, Kanter announced that events would continue to be virtual: “I trust our city and county officials. They are warning us not to jump at the opportunity or even the idea of ‘returning to normal’ anytime soon.”
First Unitarian continues to live-stream its two masses, as well as Zoom coffee hours for members and new members on Sunday morning.
In south Dallas and Pleasant Grove, churches take on more than just religious or spiritual services. These are places where people socialize with free meals, bake sales, and through seminars or talks. At many churches, there are also opportunities to receive free legal services and meet candidates running for public office.
At Concord Church in south Dallas there are no new plans to move back to in-person events. Sunday services are streamed live and their popular marriage counseling course continues on Zoom. Concord’s pastor Rev. Bryan Carter was a signatory on an op-ed to Gov. Greg Abbott and Paxton nearly three weeks ago affirming that churches and other places of worship should remain closed.
In the state of Texas (like most of the country), COVID-19 cases are disproportionately affecting Latinos and African Americans. Barbara Steele, a longtime civic organizer in Dallas, understands that and it’s why she is supportive of her own church (Good Street Baptist Church) staying mostly virtual. Noting that she trusts “the doctors,” Steele also sees ways that churches can continue services by broadcasting. “We find ways to reach our people,” she said.
While many churches with ties to the Democratic party remain virtual, churches that are popular amongst right-wing circles don’t appear to be jumping on to Paxton’s reopening bandwagon either.
Dr. Robert Jeffress, a major Trump ally, has been conspicuously mum about future plans for First Baptist Dallas. Occupying 178,000 square feet in downtown Dallas with a fountain that was built to model the Bellagio, First Baptist typically brings in thousands of congregants every Sunday and often hosts guest speakers like Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The day after Paxton’s letter, Jeffress’s Twitter feed didn’t mention anything regarding resuming church services (he did promote his book and congratulate President Trump on the two-year anniversary of moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem). On Sunday he promoted three services online. As of now it appears First Baptist Dallas remains closed, and it looks like they can continue to save money on water bills for that fountain.
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