Next Tuesday, Nov. 2, Texas’ voters should vote against proposed Proposition 3, which would amend the Texas Constitution to prohibit state and local government officials from imposing restrictions on religious services in a pandemic like the coronavirus outbreak.
Proposition 3 was approved by the Texas Legislature and signed by Governor Greg Abbott. If passed, it would adopt an amendment to the Texas Constitution stripping any Texas state or local authority of the power to limit the size of religious services, even in the throes of virulent outbreaks of disease.
Voters should carefully consider the implications of this dangerous proposed change to the Texas Constitution. Texas, along with the rest of the nation, is still coping with the effects of the coronavirus, the most savage outbreak of contagious disease in the last 100 years of American history.
At its peak, the coronavirus required emergency measures to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public. The tools available to Texas state and local officials, including Texas’ governor, included limiting the size of public gatherings, wearing masks in public and closing schools, which had a direct impact on places of worship, including synagogues, religious schools and megachurches which are prominent throughout Texas.
Last June, Gov. Abbott signed into law the Texas Freedom to Worship Act, passed in this year’s regular legislative session. The law expressly prohibits government officials from requiring cancellation or limiting the size of worship services, even during a pandemic where contagious disease is decimating society. The new law is not only shortsighted but it denies the dangers that contagious diseases represent.
The coronavirus is the most recent iteration of America’s struggles with deadly diseases. American and Texas history are replete with outbreaks of epidemics that have felled millions of Americans. These outbreaks include: smallpox (1633-34), yellow fever (1793), cholera (1832-1866), scarlet fever (1858), typhoid (1906-07), Spanish flu (1918), diphtheria (1921-25), polio (1916-1955), influenza (1957), measles (1981-1991), H1N1 flu (2009), whooping cough (2010, 2014) and the most recent outbreak of the coronavirus.
The dangerous implications of voters approving Proposition 3 extend beyond threats from outbreaks of disease. If a Texas community is threatened by a massive fire, flooding or chemical spill, state and local officials would be powerless to limit religious gatherings when confronting overwhelming dangers to the public.
Texas’ Constitution already provides strong protections for freedom of worship in Article I, Section 6 of the Texas Bill of Rights, which guarantees that all “have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty G-d according to the dictates of their own consciences. No man shall be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent.”
The United States Supreme Court has ruled that the free exercise of religion may be regulated by state and local officials only where there is a compelling state interest to do so. When a deadly disease threatens to decimate the citizenry, Texas state and local officials must have the powers to act to protect the safety and welfare of Texans.
The powers of Gov. Abbott, state and local authorities to deal with natural disasters and virulent diseases come from the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which provides the governor, state and local officials with authority to take strong actions to protect citizens in disasters. The governor is Texas’ chief emergency services officer, and mayors and county judges are vested with powers to protect inhabitants of their jurisdictions.
The scourge of the coronavirus has been a powerful reminder that epidemics and natural disasters pose a real and present danger to religious communities.
Judaism places primary importance on the value of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life. Protecting the health of the community is a Jewish value based on the teaching of Torah and rabbinic commentary that the health of individuals and the community is of overriding importance.
And, Judaism clearly embraces the religious value of protecting the community. Preservation of human life, preserving human life, promoting health and taking strong measures to combat disease are fundamental Jewish values.
Proposition 3 would further erode the powers of Texas state and local officials to protect citizens from epidemics and natural disasters.
Of course, the Jewish community hungers for a full return to full religious observance and community activities. Yet, that should not blind us to the real perils that include our communities from diseases and public disaster.
Voters should reject Proposition 3 by voting “No.”
A version of this editorial appeared in the Oct. 28, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston.