AUSTIN, Texas - When the noon hour bells rang at Saint Mary's Church in downtown Austin there wasn't a big crowd for the midday mass.
A year ago, as the pandemic raced through the United States, indoor church gatherings of more than 250 were outlawed by several communities across Texas. Violating the shutdown orders in some towns would result in fines and even jail time.
To prevent that kind of action, the Senate State Affairs Committee considered SB 26 Monday at the Texas capitol filed by Senator Angela Paxton (R) Allen.
"This legislation is simply beautifully tailored to protect the freedom to assemble in places of worship, to practice faith, from future orders issued under Emergency Powers, by Amending the Religious Freedom Act," said Paxton.
About a dozen people came to the hearing to testify, all in support of SB 26.
Leander pastor Hanoi Avila told the committee he understands the health reasons that were used to justify shut down orders. But he and others noted how across the country - as churches were closed - other places like liquor stores and even strip clubs were classified as essential and allowed to stay open. "I may want security but I need Liberty. To preserve, protect and defend the latter, by voting yes," said Avila.
Pastor Frank Pomeroy also testified. He is the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs. "The events of this last year have put forward the church has not been essential," said Pomeroy.
The church survived an attack in 2017 by a lone gunman. On Sunday, Pomeroy told his congregation he would be in Austin Monday to help stop an attack on their constitutional rights.
"It’s just mainly to go and show our Senators that people of the Church find it important enough to be able to let the Church be the Church in times of trials and tragedies. Of all the times a church should be open is in the midst of times of trials and tragedies," said Pomeroy during the Sunday Service.
In the Senate Chamber, Pomeroy quoted from a letter written by Martin Luther almost 500 years ago during a similar crisis. "We die at our posts, Christian Doctors can not abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations, The plague does not dissolve our duties in fact they turn them to Crosses on which we must be prepared to die," said Pomeroy.
Several churches still have COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
In a recent letter, Austin Diocese Bishop Joe Vasquez notified Catholic parishioners that social distancing and mask rules will remain in place, despite Governor Abbott‘s decision recently to eliminate capacity restrictions and the statewide mask mandate.
"I think what we saw over the past year, with the difference in priorities, what she said liquor stores, strip clubs, whatever, place in a position where the church has become just something to tolerate, and we need to go back to the Constitutional, the fact that we have to go back to the constitution, the fact that we have to pass a law to give teeth is unheard of to me when now this was a constitutional right," said Pomeroy.
The bill would not prevent emergency orders that include churches; it just would not let them be singled out. The orders would have to be justified.
"It’s about equal treatment. But it is also about recognizing there is special care, the special attention that should be given when you're dealing with people's First Amendment Rights," said Sen. Paxton during a phone interview after the hearing.
No action on SB 26 was taken. A companion resolution was introduced. SJR 27 would let voters decide if a church protection measure should be part of the state constitution.