A medical worker administers a coronavirus test at a Houston church on July 17. (Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Religious schools in Texas, where coronavirus rates have been spiking for weeks, do not have to follow any coronavirus-related health restrictions that local governments may impose on educational institutions because, the state’s attorney general said, it could impede the free exercise of religion.

In a July 17 letter, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said that it would be unconstitutional to force religious schools to follow recommendations of health authorities about reopening schools during the pandemic, and he said they may decide for themselves “when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference.”

“Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary,” he wrote.

Texas in recent weeks has experienced a big spike in coronavirus cases, and many hospitals in the state are running out of space for intensive care patients, as well as ventilators, drugs and some personal protective equipment.

Texas officials had told school districts they had to open for in-person instruction for the 2020-21 school year, but the Texas Education Agency has backed off that demand, providing flexibility that will allow for remote education for up to eight weeks for most students. Houston, the largest district in the state, has announced that it will start the new school year remotely on Sept. 8.

Remote education will last until at least Oct. 19, although that could change depending on coronavirus rates in the community and guidance from health officials.

According to Paxton’s letter, religious schools can do what they want. He wrote:

The Governor of Texas rightfully identified access to “religious services” as essential services, which must remain open even when other aspects of our communities must close to mitigate the spread of the virus. …
Recently, however, local public health officials have begun to issue orders restricting or limiting in-person instruction in private and public schools. This guidance is intended to clarify the application of those local orders to religious private schools and institutions.
Local public health orders issued by cities and counties must be consistent with the Governor’s orders and the Attorney General’s guidance. If local public health orders are inconsistent with these authorities, the local orders must yield.
Under the Governor’s orders, local governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions. 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. Moreover, local public health orders attempting to restrict the provision of religious instruction through religious private schools violate the United States and Texas Constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Here is Paxton’s full letter: