Religious Refusal Bill Prepped to Grant Texans License to Discriminate
"Sincerely held" nonsense at the Senate
Not with a toilet flush, but with a whimper, the Senate Committee on State Affairs sent a sweeping religious refusal bill to the full Senate Monday evening, March 25, after several hours of testimony from Texas residents, social workers, lawyers, and numerous members of the clergy. Filed by Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, on March 7 and co-authored by senators Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, Senate Bill 17 is a far-reaching religious liberty bill that would give any professional licensed by the state of Texas – including doctors, lawyers, teachers, real estate agents, and even mold assessors – a license to discriminate under the guise of protecting "freedom of speech" regarding "sincerely held" religious beliefs.
Two days later, leaders from the state's business, technology, and tourism industries, united in a coalition dubbed Texas Welcomes All, gathered at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to oppose SB 17 along with 15 other religious refusal bills, as well as legislation that would gut Texas cities' nondiscrimination ordinances protecting LGBTQ residents – including SB 15, the Lege's attack on Austin's paid sick leave rules. Most speakers harkened back to the lasting negative effects of 2017's bathroom bill battle – which cost the state more than $66 million – and warned that bills like SB 17 would continue to harm the state's economy, scare off conventions, and make Texas unattractive to "talented workers [who] have concerns about moving to or staying in a state that pursues discriminatory policies," according to Jackie Padgett of Austin's Silicon Laboratories.
Equality Texas, the state's largest LGBTQ rights advocacy group, has dubbed SB 17 the No. 1 legislative threat to the state's queer and transgender communities this session – though if enacted, it would also affect those who practice different religions, single parents, and women seeking birth control, among others. In a press release sent March 22, EQTX chided Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – last session's champion of the transphobic bathroom bill – for making SB 17 a priority and "expediting it through the legislative process." (The similar House Bill 1035 by Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, was referred to the House Committee on State Affairs on Feb. 26 but has not yet been granted a hearing.)
Monday's public hearing highlighted a clause in SB 17 prohibiting medical providers from withholding care that would "prevent death or imminent serious bodily injury." Supporters, including Perry, insisted this ensures life-saving care would not be denied, but could not define what exactly constitutes "life-saving care." Ash Hall, Austin Democratic precinct chair and LGBTQ policy expert, told the committee about a serious brush with depression they experienced while attending Baylor University several years ago. Hall decided to see a school therapist, who was visibly uncomfortable with Hall's queerness, but still managed to do her job and provided Hall the tools to transfer to a new school. "If she had not listened to me, I assure you I would not be here today," said Hall, who added, "That lifesaving part of it isn't always so obvious. It's easier for a doctor to see I'm LGBTQ instead of five minutes away from my appendix rupturing."
Perry insisted his bill is not designed to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, but instead defend those who feel the government is attempting to "punish people of faith," as Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, described it. (That group sued Austin last October to challenge the city's employment nondiscrimination ordinance.) In response, a speaker from Dallas – and member of the clergy – said he was grateful for religious liberty laws, but is "disturbed that we could exercise that religion in professional life." When questioned as to whether a baker opposing marriage equality should be forced to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, he answered: "If you're using deeply held religious beliefs, then use them as they are in the Scripture. ... Don't use it to discriminate against one population."
Despite more than 50 people speaking against the bill – calling it "major government overreach"; cautioning that it could have "disastrous consequences," especially to LGBTQ folks living in rural parts of the state; and accusing SB 17 of addressing a "problem that does not exist" – the committee forwarded the bill to the full Senate with seven votes in support; Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was the only vote against.