A Boxful of Letters: Most Texas Churchgoers Don't Share Attorney General's Complaints About Cities' COVID-19 Containment

A trio of letters sent from the Texas Attorney General’s office to the leaders of three of the state’s major metropolitan areas again raised the public tension between the limits on religious practices contained in public health measures undertaken to contain the spread of coronavirus and the protection of religious liberties. That tension, however, may be more acutely felt by elected officials navigating party politics and personal rivalries than it is by most voters.

While the content of these letters is fraught with multiple political conflicts, primarily the continuous flogging of local governments in the major metropolitan areas by the state’s Republican leaders, it seems no accident that all three of the AG’s letters led off with a section on “Houses of Worship,” giving the subject's pride of place in epistles that also warned darkly of “Orwellian” threats and the like. The letters seemed built from the same template, so one wouldn’t want to discount efficiency of effort. But from the outset of the pandemic, would-be opinion leaders in the Christian conservative wing of the Texas GOP have bucked at even the suggestion of limitations on how people can practice their faith in group settings. This initiative seems to fall into the broad class of pre-pandemic examples of GOP policy makers pursuing policy initiatives aimed at catering to an outspoken but small faction within their political coalition, and using their political capital to lead the charge on what for many was at best a minor concern and at most sheerly esoteric — think the bathroom bill agitation of a few years back, billed as an outright crisis but now on its way to being an obscure footnote in recent texas political history.

Once again, the leadership may be preaching to a very small choir. The attorney general's effort to ring the bells of San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin’s mayors and county judges comes on the heels of a recent survey by The University of Chicago Divinity School and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found limited appetite for unrestricted religious services in the age of corona, with only 9% of American adults supportive of the continuation of in-person religious services without any restrictions, and nearly half (48%) saying that in-person religious services shouldn’t be allowed at all during the outbreak. 

Nor is there much resistance even in God-fearing Texas, where 45% of voters say that religion is “extremely important” in their lives, 34% say that they attend church at least once a week, and 32% believe that the Bible is the literal word of God. Yet 74% of voters, according to the April 2020 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, favor restricting in-person religious services of more than 10 people as part of the effort to contain COVID-19. This is only slightly less than the 80% who favor prohibiting the size of all public gatherings to 10 or fewer people. 

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Reported church attendance habits condition receptiveness to placing limits on religious gatherings, but less than one might suspect. Among those who attend church at least once per week, 66% still expressed support for restricting in-person religious services, compared to 77% who attend less frequently.

While regular churchgoers are less likely to see the coronavirus as “a significant crisis” compared to less regular church attenders (59% for weekly attenders compared to 70% of those who attend a few times per month), they are indistinguishable in their support for mandatory quarantines for those exposed to the virus (84% and 85% for both regular and less regular church attenders, respectively).

Amidst this set of broadly similar attitudes about the coronavirus among both frequent and infrequent churchgoers, the polling also indicates similar behavior changes among both groups in response to the virus. Church attendance of the most committed, like that of the less committed, has decreased, as suggested (or in some cases required) by public health officials. Asked whether or not their church attendance has changed due to COVID-19, 87% of those who attend church at least once a week said that their habits have changed, suggesting that about 13% of habitual church goers have continued their attendance patterns during the pandemic. 

Among the large majority of churchgoers who have changed their habits (87%), attitudes about containment measures don’t convey major resistance to being asked to alter how and where they worship: Among those frequent churchgoers who have changed their habits as a result of the virus (and presumably for some, the restrictions placed on these gatherings by local governments), a robust 71% said that they support the restriction of in-person religious services of more than 10 people. Texans who were attending church at least once per week are now almost split between attending remote services (49%) or simply choosing not to attend (44%). 

Attorney General Paxton’s commitment to defending principles notwithstanding, the share of Texans expressing strong objections in their opinions or reported behavior to the deployed containment measures applied to religious practice is very small. The number of those directly resisting these measures out of a likely objection to having their religious practice burdened by efforts to contain the pandemic appears infinitesimal. In our April poll, only 1% of Texas voters reported attending church at least once a week, opposing the limitations on church gatherings of more than 10 people, and continuing their frequent church attendance in person. Only 8% of Texans have both oppose restrictions on in-person religious services and have changed their frequent church attendance habits due to COVID-19.

So despite all the attention paid to protecting the rights of the devout by elected officials and would-be opinion leaders in public rhetoric, lawsuits, letters and proclamations, a sizable  majority of Texas churchgoers both support emergency restrictions enacted in the name of public health, and appear willing to follow recommendations for safer worship. The attorney general, it should be said, is likely correct that coercive measures to enforce such guidance, or a lack of regard for religion’s constitutionally protected status from the classification of religious services in the executive orders, likely would trigger less approval and even more active resistance among the devout — and may be doing so in some areas. These instances attract media attention and the support from would-be opinion leaders and big pocket funders, but there is no evidence that they represent widespread sentiment or are likely to tap into an underlying wellspring of support.

The shrugging response of the mayors and judges who received the Attorney General’s warning letters is, therefore, likely in tune with their respective voters, particularly in the urban areas targeted by the attorney general. City and county leaders denied that they are overstepping as they repeat claims that their efforts align with Gov. Abbott’s successive executive orders. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenmberg specifically addressed their supposed overstepping when it comes to “Houses of Worship” in their May 12 reply to AG Paxton’s letter:

We assisted our faith community by circulating the joint guidance issued by you and the governor for Houses of Worship and we assure you that we do not prohibit the number of people who can attend religious services.  

It’s no accident that they mention that the AG’s joint guidance document. When the first 3-page version was issued by Attorney General Paxton (but billed as “joint guidance from the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Governor”) on March 31, the governor was beset on his left by those accusing him of dithering and on his right by activists already taking legal action against local efforts. The guidance began by noting that “the right of Texans to freely exercise their religion” was protected by the US and Texas Constitutions as well as by state law. But as Abbott instituted unprecedented restrictions in the state, the guidance that, as we flagged in a post shortly after it was issued, also prominently included a final paragraph noting that  “these restrictions do not violate the religious liberty of houses of worship because the government has a compelling interest for implementing the rules (stopping contagion).”  As Governor Abbott has sought to loosen efforts at containment, the guidance document has grown to five pages in its current third iteration. Yet however much the context and Abbott’s tact toward containment have changed, the final paragraph remains a reminder that the assertion of authority over houses of worship is justified "under the extraordinary circumstances in which we temporarily live.”

However loud the isolated protests, most Texas churchgoing folk appear to agree with that analysis, even if the attorney general’s office has second thoughts when it comes to cities and counties. A large majority of the devout appear also to believe in the need to balance public health with their spiritual needs, whatever the fights of mere mortals trying to guide the balancing.