At the direction of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Texas Senate Committee convened on Wednesday morning to examine “religious liberty protections” and the relationship between local ordinances and state and federal law.
The State Affairs Committee – compelled by an October directive from Attorney General Ken Paxton – was tasked with ensuring that the government doesn’t force citizens or businesses to “violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.” An excuse to stir up anti-LGBT fervor under the guise of religious freedom, the hearing featured several testifiers who used the platform to voice their dissatisfaction with the Obergefell v Hodges U.S. Supreme Court marriage equality ruling.
Members of religious-right groups including Texas Values and the Texas Eagle Forum claimed attacks on religious freedom have hit an all-time high and individuals, including Molly Crimer, the Irion County clerk who refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses, and a Texas photographer who halted wedding photo services to prevent serving LGBT couples, decried non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT citizens while hoping to be afforded special protection themselves. However, the testifiers could rarely point to individual examples of actual retribution for religious beliefs, even prompting Sen. Craig Estes, R-Witchita Falls, ( who authored an anti-LGBT bill cloaked as "religious freedom") to plead with one speaker, “This testimony is long on theory and short on specifics. Please give us specific names,” so we have “ammo” to defend these laws, he said. (The speaker failed to do so.)
Aside from the paltry evidence of religious discrimination, the case for a supposed unprecedented threat to Christianity in the state grows even weaker when considering a Texas-based law that protects religious freedom has existed, with bipartisan support, since 1999. Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas reminded senators the state already has an effective religious protection on the books – the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, which bars government agencies from “substantially burden[ing]” a person’s free exercise of religion. But, contrary to the wishes of the right-wing, the law can’t be used to allow citizens to opt out of zoning ordinances, public health and safety rules, or civil rights laws. “It doesn’t trump the common good,” said Robertson. Justin Butterfield with the conservative First Liberty Institute disagreed. Butterfield believes the Act falls short and that targeted protections for certain groups should be carved out (one of three major anti-LGBT tactics being employed nationwide, according to Robertson). In other words: A pass for discrimination as long as those discriminating claim religious beliefs are behind it.
Before the Senate hearing got underway, representatives from religious and civil liberties groups held a press conference to warn legislators that religious freedom protections should not be used as pretense for discriminating against LGBT Texans or an avenue for giving preferential treatment to one religion over another. “I am here today because I care deeply about religious liberty, not just from an academic standpoint, but from the very real and personal experience of actively practicing a minority religion in a Christian society,” said Jared Lindauer, an Austin attorney with the Anti-Defamation League. “I am concerned when the state takes actions that appear to endorse one religion over all others. Such actions create the potential for divisiveness and can make people of minority faiths feel like outcasts in their own communities.”
Murali Balaji, director of education and curriculum reform at the Hindu American Foundation, requested the committee take into account the fact Hindus in Texas face harassment and coercion from Christian groups urging them to convert in exchange for food or jobs. “Religious discrimination affects our communities, which is why anti-discrimination laws are vital. That's why weakening or trying to find exemptions in these laws undermines our rights as religious minorities,” said Balaji.
While the 84th Legislative session yielded around two dozen bills – a record number of anti-LGBT measures – that would have allowed state-funded agencies and businesses to discriminate against gay residents based on "sincerely held religious beliefs” and undercut local nondiscrimination ordinances (as one of the five Texas cities with an explicit NDO, Austin would be affected) a confluence of factors, including vocal backlash from conservative-friendly businesses, forced the proposed legislation to fall by the wayside. And while religious-right advocates may signal success with the session's passage of the Pastor Protection Act, which protects clergy members against overseeing same-sex marriage, LGBT advocates counter the Act is needless as state and federal law already protects clergy and churches.One of the business leaders who voiced opposition to the bills during session, Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business (and an unlikely ally to the progressives on his side), showed up at the Senate hearing to once again knock the anti-LGBT bills, saying the legislation is “bad for business,” and would negatively impact the Texas economy. The measures would spur a “chilling effect” on the recruitment of a demographic concerned with the issue – young professionals, who make up 25% (and soon 40%) of the workforce, said Hammond.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, cautioned that with normal Senate rules dashed, any of the previously authored “red meat” bills could crop back up next session. Kathy Miller with the Texas Freedom Network pointed to Paxton’s extensive wish list of religious protections as a “blueprint” of what to expect in 2017. One of the proposals: A uniformity of discrimination laws at the state level that would limit local government’s ability to pass their own discrimination ordinances. “I don’t think this issue is going away,” said Miller. “I think because religious liberty is an absolutely fundamental freedom that we all agree on, using the term religious liberty as a dog whistle for heightened politicized measures will not be less common, but more common in Texas.”
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