Public Notice: Your Government at Work

The Texas Legislature and “the disturbing category of ‘Who Knows?’”

Public Notice: Your Government at Work

For many, the headline news out of the Texas Legislature Wednesday morning was the death of Senate Bill 1515, which would have required a specific Protestant version of the Ten Commandments to be "conspicuously" displayed within every classroom in Texas.

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, issued an impassioned statement about it that kind of summed up the state of discourse at the Lege these days: "The Ten Com­mand­ments are important to me personally and to my faith," he said, but denounced SB 1515 as "deeply un-Christian ... This bill is idolatrous, it is exclusionary, and it is arrogant. It is deeply offensive to me as a Christian.

"For 40 years, the religious right has used 'faith' to push hateful, exclusionary legislation – like a state-level ban on gay marriage, the most extreme abortion ban in the nation with no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, and even bills to restrict access to basic contraception. Now, this same movement is trying to force Christian nationalism onto the children of this state – without their consent or the consent of their parents.

"I'm proud of Texas Democrats for sticking together and stopping this dangerous bill. This is an important win for religious liberty and the separation of church and state. But this fight isn't over yet."

Indeed it's not. The most immediate example: At press time, a bill may yet pass to let school boards hire chaplains instead of counselors for public schools (Christian only, and unlicensed). SB 763 is part of a nationwide effort to bring religion into schools. Except it's not religion, it's God, Rocky Malloy would tell you. Malloy was an invited witness in both the House and Senate chambers to testify on this bill; he runs Mission Generation, a group that started "with an idea from God: to use the largest national network, the public school system, to bring Jesus to an entire nation." And if anyone doesn't want Jesus brought to them? There's not much room for that. Malloy explains that the chaplain program "gives a person on campus the legitimate position of representing absolute truth. ... We need somebody on payroll to represent absolute truth in school." And chaplains are constitutional "because they represent God, not religion." And so, as he exhorts his followers in one promo video, "We're very close now to having chaplains in public schools, funded by public money. God and prayer are back in school, in an official capacity, delivered through chaplains."

Nor are Republican leaders shy about proclaiming their goal: "There is absolutely no separation of God and government, and that's what these bills are about. That has been confused; it's not real," said SB 763's author, Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Galves­ton, about the Ten Commandments bill.

But surely this is unconstitutional, right? Someone will no doubt sue to reverse it? Sure, but where that ultimately winds up is not as clear as you might think, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Kennedy v. Bremer­ton School District ruling last year, allowing a football coach to lead "optional" post-game prayer sessions. As constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman wrote last month in Bloom­berg: "Before that ruling, the Texas bill would've been an obviously unconstitutional establishment of religion, something prohibited by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Now, however, it comes under the disturbing category of 'Who knows?'"

Five days until sine die, and it's the usual whirlwind down at the Capitol. Here are some other wonderful laws that either just passed or are still pending in these frantic final 120 hours.

• A trio of election bills – SBs 1933, 1070, and 1750 – all passed Tuesday on party lines. These will allow the state to abolish the Harris County Elections Administrator's Office, take over the administration of other county election departments with little cause, and leave the national Electronic Registration Information Center to develop its own system for overseeing voter registration lists. I believe you can see where this is heading.

School funding is up in the air, after the Senate revived their voucher plan on Tues­day by tacking it onto the school finance bill. Remember how one of the big talking points early in the session was how teachers and schools would get a long-­overdue boost from this year's budget windfall? Predict­ably, the dollar amount of that boost has dropped throughout the session, and now it appears the Senate will only release it if it comes with a big money drain going out to private schools. Swell.

Book-banning is a thing. HB 900, passed by both houses, will among other things require every vendor or anyone who provides books to school libraries to certify whether each book they offer is "patently offensive," based partly upon "whether a reasonable person would find that the material intentionally panders to, titillates, or shocks the reader." Hmm, I think I'd take points off for any book that doesn't make any effort to pander to, titillate, or shock the reader.

Tenure is out at Texas public colleges (SB 18), but diversity, equity, and inclusion offices aren't banned ... yet (SB 17). Or so it appears; the fate of those two bills seems oddly in limbo at press time.

• And through the day, the Senate has been debating and amending HB 7 – to establish a new Texas Border Force with unlicensed vigilantes, among other things – and has passed a version, though it would still need to be reconciled with a House version.

Gender affirming care for minors will be outlawed in Texas as of Sept. 1 (SB 14) – though this one also seems destined for the courts.

That's a whole lot of yuck. We'll have more next week in a Lege wrap.

This Monday, the city of Austin put out a request for qualifications for a firm to execute the design, architecture, and engineering services to redevelop and expand the Austin Convention Center. They estimate closing and demolishing the current building in 2025, and reopening in 2029.

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