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Texas Proposition 3 and the Black church

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By: Roy Douglas Malonson

  The COVID-19 / coronavirus pandemic still has people trying to figure out how to protect ourselves and our loved ones, whether we dine in or dine out at restaurants, and what buildings should remain open or closed. Texas Governor Greg Abbott became the center of scrutiny at the start of the schoolyear after mandating that students and staff NOT wear masks, and now, on the Nov. 2 ballot is Texas Proposition 3, which decides what rights houses of worships have.

Do you know what Texas Proposition 3 is? Not many do, but you should.

If voted into the Texas constitution, it will forbid state and local governments from limiting in-person gatherings regardless of threats to overall public health.

This proposed constitutional amendment, if passed, would protect churches and places of worship, as well as religious organizations, from being shut down by the government like they were when the pandemic first struck.

“I am in support of protections of our religious freedom,” said Rev. T. Leon Preston II, Yale Street Baptist Church. “Religious leaders should have the freedom of choice to determine whether we would shut down, based upon all knowledge and wisdom we gain from the medical experts. Leave that choice in our hands. “

Steven T. Collis, founding director of Texas’ Law and Religion Clinic, says Proposition 3 is designed to ensure states can’t close or limit churches the way many governing bodies did at the start of the pandemic to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“There are almost no circumstances where government should be able to order the closing of a church, but a truly deadly pandemic would be one of them. The new statutory and constitutional language would remove any flexibility for government to close churches even if it did have a compelling interest, even if we faced a pandemic far deadlier than COVID,” Collis said.  “If people don’t think through the consequences at all, I suspect most church-going people will vote in favor of it,” Collis says.

But what are the consequences? And for the Black community, how could it affect us?

In early 2020, at the very start of the pandemic, COVID-19 left communities of faith reeling, not only from the shift to virtual services, but also from the deaths of so many leaders across denominations.

“Pandemic – A Nation Divided” was ABC News’ special coverage of the heightened racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In that report, ABC News identified at least 33 African American bishops, reverends and pastors who led various denominations around the country who died from the coronavirus.

In 2020, the Church of God in Christ, the country’s biggest African American Pentecostal denomination, took a deep and painful leadership hit with reports of at least a dozen to up to 30 bishops and prominent clergy dying of COVID-19.  Among those who died were: First Assistant Presiding Bishop Phillip A. Brooks, a legendary preacher and leader from Detroit; Bishop Timothy Scott, a leader for nearly 50 years of the denomination in Mississippi; and two Michigan bishops, Robert E. Smith Sr. and Robert L. Harris.

“It’s sorrowful to lose one of our leaders,” 79-year-old Charles E. Blake, the presiding bishop of the COGIC, which is based in Los Angeles, California, told ABC News. “One bishop lost to this disease is one bishop too many… the sorrow you can never get use to, the loss you can never get accustomed to that, but not being able to mourn and to even celebrate the lives of those who I’ve known and loved that is difficult also.”

Across Texas, many leaders from various faiths – and of various races — passed away.  Pastor Rick Cortez of ACTS Christian Church and Pastor Darrell Boone of Life Pointe Church in Hitchcock died after contracting COVID-19. Irvin Baxter, the founder of Endtime Ministries, succumbed to symptoms linked to COVID-19, Houston’s beloved “Shepherd” Manson Johnson of the historic Holman Street Baptist Church died from COVID complications, and many others.

During the pandemic, public health officials repeatedly advised against large social gatherings to slow the spread of the virus, and leaders struggled to adjust.

When the stay-at-home and social distancing orders were first issued, it caught “many traditional Black churches” off-guard because they were “technically challenged” or did not have a “digital footprint.”

Churches were left struggling to pay the bills, at first, from decreased participation, and many worshippers were expressing sadness of not being able to be with the congregations in person. Many felt lost without the physical presence of their trusted leaders. But like many other issues Blacks face, we proved to be resilient.

To survive during the pandemic, church services, funerals and other events were moved from in-person spaces to live streaming services like Zoom, Skype or Facebook Live. Those who were not accustomed to the virtual world, learned a new skill and the churches who were behind in technical advancements, adapted to the innovative ways many say they will continue to use going forward, even though the “doors of the church” are back open.

So, is this amendment still needed?

If Proposition 3 stands up to constitutional challenges, Collis says it will make it more difficult to stop religious gatherings in response to a deadly pandemic, possibly one worse than COVID-19, and whether this will result in a net positive or negative over time is difficult to say.

The question is – will Black communities, which are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19, suffer further if this proposition takes place? Or have we – or those we trust to lead us – learned enough to protect ourselves?

Texas Proposition 3 Overview:

  • Prohibits government agencies and officials from issuing orders that close or have the effect of closing “churches, congregations, and places of worship” in Texas.
  • Further secures the Texas Freedom to Worship Act, passed during the 87th Regular Session, by preserving it in the Texas Constitution.
  • “Place of worship” is defined in Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code Section 110 to include non-church buildings or grounds where religious activities are conducted.

“If we don’t protect us, who’s going to protect us? We have the right and the freedom to make a choice,” Rev. Preston said.

Continue to educate yourselves on what’s on the ballot and VOTE to take more control of your futures.

 

 

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