Shared from the 4/17/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Abbott, Paxton sued over coronavirus orders

Tom Fox / Dallas Morning News file photo

Gov. Greg Abbott is being sued by conservative activists and pastors for a new executive order on quarantine guidelines.

A group of conservative activists and pastors that’s challenging Harris County’s stay-at-home order is now also suing Gov. Greg Abbott, claiming his recent executive order to stem the spread of COVID-19 infringes on their constitutional rights.

In a suit filed in Travis County on Thursday, Steve Hotze, a longtime conservative activist, and multiple Houston-area pastors accuse the governor of “imposing draconian, unconstitutional requirements” on Texans. Attorney General Ken Paxton is also a defendant in the suit.

“Once government and its constituents start operating on the basis of fear rather than facts, they are willing to take whatever medicine is prescribed, no matter how harmful the side effects may be,” the suit says. “Churches and small businesses are shut down, and Texans’ right to move about freely is restricted. For all practical purposes, the governor’s executive orders constitutes a ‘lock-down.’ ”

Abbott could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Many of the plaintiffs in the new suit are also involved in a separate legal challenge to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order.

Those restrictions were superseded last month by Abbott’s order, which deemed church services as “essential.” The governor also said that church members should practice social distancing.

Multiple legal experts said that the order struck a fine balance between public health concerns and religious liberties, and many congregations said they would continue meeting online.

Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County GOP chairman who is representing the plaintiffs, said Abbott’s order did not go far enough.

“I don't think the governor has a right to say when people can worship or the manner in which they can worship,” Woodfill said.

The new suit also challenges the authority granted to Texas governors or local authorities under the state’s disaster act. Woodfill accused Abbott and local leaders of “suspending” laws and thus setting a poor precedent for future disasters.

“Think about the authority that this one statute gives to so many individuals,” Woodfill said. “They can effectively do what they’ve done: Destroy an economy.”

At least 17,000 Texans have been infected by the virus and more than 400 had died as of Thursday. Yet those numbers likely account for only a portion of the actual cases in Texas, which has been among the lowest states for testing per capita.

Earlier this week, an expert on pandemics told the Chronicle that the nation is likely only in the second of a five-step process to maintain and recover from the virus.

Meanwhile, Hotze, Woodfill and many of the plaintiffs in the suit have continued to hold or attend worship services in recent weeks, and shared photos with a reporter in which they and others are embracing or standing directly next to one another.

“We’re first responders too — in the spiritual realm and in the mental realm,” John Greiner, pastor of Houston’s Glorious Way Church, said after a recent service.

“We are one nation under God, and ‘In God We Trust’ is on our money,” added Greiner, who is also a plaintiff in the suits. “For us to have our freedom of religion and the right of peaceful assembly taken from us? ... It’s just not tolerable.”

Hotze has also continued to compare the virus to the flu, calling it “fake news” that’s been over hyped by the media and “weaponized” to hurt President Donald Trump.

Jasper Scherer contributed to this report.

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