The Austin Chronicle

Paxton Stacks AG’s Office With Anti-LGBT Culture Warriors

By Mary Tuma, April 12, 2016, 1:00pm, Newsdesk

Hiring moderate, apolitical attorneys doesn’t seem to be the game plan for the state’s top law enforcement officer.

Instead, Attorney General Ken Paxton – facing multiple legal charges, including securities fraud – has asked overtly right-wing, anti-LGBT employees to join his office, reaffirming the AG’s mission to use religion as a vehicle to discriminate.

Last month, Paxton, who assumed office in January 2015 following former AG Greg Abbott’s ascension to governor, hired Jeff Mateer as first assistant attorney general. Doubling up on the crusade to boost culture warriors, Paxton additionally hired Hiram Sasser as his chief-of-staff last week. Both Mateer and Sasser come from the Plano-based First Liberty Institute (formerly Liberty Institute), which describes itself as a “nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending religious liberty” in schools, the military, and throughout the public arena.

The group has made a name by actively eroding church-state separation and local anti-discrimination rules meant to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Texans. Attorneys have represented Kountze, Texas, cheerleaders banned from painting Bible scripture on posters; wedding cake shop owners unwilling to provide services to a same-sex couple; and, along with the Oklahoma AG, defended a 10 Commandments monument on government property. The group also provided legal representation to anti-LGBT Hood County Clerk Katie Lang after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Sounding the (false) alarm after SCOTUS legalized same-sex marriage, Institute CEO Kelly Shackelford wrote, “This is going to be a direct attack on religious freedom everywhere in the country and no one will escape it.”

Mateer helped represent anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers in their case against the city of Austin’s 2012 ordinance requiring the typically Christian-based, non-medical CPCs to disclose services offered on posted signs at their door. The city paid out $480,000 in an attorney fee settlement after a federal judge ruled the truth in advertising ordinance unconstitutional in 2014. “This … sends a clear message to NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and governments everywhere: Respect the rights of faith-based pregnancy resource centers. If you violate a nonprofit’s rights, you will pay a steep price,” said Mateer at the time.

First Liberty also takes pride in supporting the Pastor Protection Act, a Texas law passed last year that ensures pastors and churches don’t have to perform marriages that would “violate their sincerely held religious beliefs” and has advised some 13 states on how to strengthen the law to withstand legal challenges. “Whether it be in business dealings, the provision of adoption and foster care services, employment, the military, or on our school and colleges campuses, the right of all citizens to hold a faith-based view of marriage as the sacred union of one man and one woman should be protected,” said Mateer after its passage. During a February Senate State Affairs Committee hearing, the group indicated their intention to widen the opportunity for religious convictions to be used as a means to violate anti-discrimination laws next legislative session.

“Texans should be concerned by the attorney general’s deliberate effort to politicize the state’s chief office tasked with defending our laws and Constitution,” said Kathy Miller, president of right-wing watchdog Texas Freedom Network. “Within the course of just one month, he has appointed to top leadership positions culture warriors who have dedicated their careers to defending the use of religion as a weapon to discriminate against and harm others.”

TFN notes Mateer’s history of explicitly arguing that separation of church and state, a key constitutional principle protecting religious freedom in America, is basically a fiction. During a conference at Houston’s University of St. Thomas in 2013, Mateer told students: “I’ll hold up my hundred-dollar bill and say, ‘for the first student who can cite me the provision in the Constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state verbatim, I’ll give this hundred dollar bill. … It’s not there. … The protections of the First Amendment protect us from government, not to cause government to persecute us because of our religious beliefs.”

Considering Paxton’s many legal woes, it’s worthy to note that in the event he’s absent or unable to act, it’s Mateer who’ll take the helm.

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