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Texas attorney general forbids local authorities from shutting down churches, religious schools

They're 'protected by the First Amendment and Texas law,' A.G. says.

Updated: July 18, 2020 - 3:19pm

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The attorney general of Texas yesterday ordered local authorities to cease any attempts to shut down churches and private religious schools, stating that those institutions are protected by both the U.S. Constitution and Texas statute. 

In an open letter on Friday, A.G. Ken Paxton said that "the robust constitutional and statutory protections unique to religious individuals and communities at all times" prohibit local governments from closing them down, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Paxton said that, adjacent to the state's efforts to reopen public schools in the fall, "local public health officials have [recently] begun to issue orders restricting or limiting in-person instruction" in private schools. In the letter, the attorney general said that "religious private schools and institutions" are exempt from those regulations. 

"Under the Governor’s orders, local governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions," Paxton wrote. "Local governments are similarly prohibited from issuing blanket orders closing religious private schools."

"Because a local order closing a religious private school or institution is inconsistent with the Governor’s order, any local order is invalid to the extent it purports to do so," he added. 

Paxton noted that attempts to "restrict the provision of religious instruction through religious private schools" violate both the federal and state constitutions as well as the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"[A]s protected by the First Amendment and Texas law, religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference," Paxton wrote. "Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary."

The Texas Education Agency has ordered that public schools in the state may delay in-person instruction for up to two months in the fall. Many teachers in the state have protested the idea of returning to in-person instruction at all for the coming semester.

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