HARRIS COUNTY, Texas – A Houston doctor and three local pastors on Monday challenged a Harris County judge’s stay-at-home order, issued last week in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. They argue that its enforcement violates their constitutional rights.
The group, led by Dr. Steven Hotze filed an emergency petition with the Texas Supreme Court seeking a writ of mandamus to correct the order, Houston Chronicle reported. Hotze was joined in the filing by pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez.
The group’s two-fold complaint—included below—is that Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order violated their First Amendment rights by postponing all in-person religious services for the foreseeable future and violated their Second Amendment rights by not defining gun shops as “essential businesses.”
Under Hidalgo’s order, religious services are only permitted via video or teleconferencing, and faith leaders are permitted to “minister and counsel in individual settings, so long as social distance protocols are followed,” reported click2houston.
Moreover, the order requires non-essential businesses to close. It further calls for Texas residents to stay home unless they are buying groceries, exercising, going to work at a sanctioned business, or performing a critical task. Hidalgo issued the directive one day after the Texas Medical Center’s chief executives unanimously instructed Harris County to implement a shelter-in-place order.
People who violate the order can face a fine and up to 180 days in jail, but Hidalgo said law enforcement officers will exercise their discretion on whether someone will be charged, click2houston reported.
Houston police Chief Art Acevedo said his officers will use “common sense” and “courtesy” while enforcing the order.
According to the emergency petition, any order restricting access to religious services and to gun stores “severely infringes” upon their constitutional rights:
The circumstances presented by coronavirus do not excuse unlawful government infringements upon freedom. Urgent First and Second Amendment issues of immense statewide significance, arising from the largest county in Texas and affecting residents throughout the Lonestar State, are presented here. This dispute concerns purely legal issues for which deference to a trial court would not be allowed, and for which no factual record is necessary.
[ . . . ]
The free exercise of religion cannot be taken lightly and should not be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency. Our state and federal constitutions embody a fundamental commitment to religious liberty and guarantee the freedom to express diverse thoughts without governmental interference. To adequately protect these rights, courts must not jealously guard their jurisdiction when disputes arise.
Furthermore, the group asserts that Hidalgo’s order effectively chooses “winners and losers” in the private sector, Law & Crime reported.
“People of faith are prohibited from worshipping in person, most private businesses are prevented from operating, gun shops are ordered closed, and people are not allowed to associate together in groups — these are some of the individual freedoms Judge Hidalgo has chosen to sacrifice,” the petition stated, listing liquor stores, yard maintenance crews, furniture suppliers and bicycle repair shops as examples.
“Because her hand-picked losers have been shuttered, her self-identified winners are allowed to thrive while other private businesses are closed indefinitely.”
Hotze recently appeared on a Fox News coronavirus special, seen below.
The doctor also promotes a vitamin regimen which he believes would help avoid off the coronavirus.