Attorney General Ken Paxton should resign

James Russell columnIn the seven months that Ken Paxton has served as Texas’ top law enforcement officer, he has slammed the federal government for its immigration policies, the Environmental Protection Agency for its environmental regulations, the Supreme Court for its rulings upholding the Affordable Care Act and legalizing marriage equality nationwide, defended the state’s stringent anti-abortion law and praised in broad terms further deregulation of the Second Amendment.

To be fair, as Texas Attorney General, Paxton’s office must defend the state court lawsuits, including those filed by his predecessor, now-Gov. Greg Abbott. Just like his predecessor he also has ambitions for higher office. Also like Abbott, his statements read like a fundraising letter. While it is clear he inherited a politicized office from Abbott, Paxton has recently done the office nor taxpayers NO additional favors.

Paxton is already under investigation by a Collin County grand jury for violating state securities law, an admission he made freely and then paid a $1,000 fine for. Under state law, it is illegal for an attorney to accept client commissions without registering first with the state securities board. Paxton not only broke the law but also broke a law he helped pass a state legislator.

Despite this revelation on the campaign trail he defeated two Republican challengers, former Rep. Dan Branch and former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman. In the general election he defeated Democrat opponent Sam Houston, a Houston-area attorney, in a landslide. Of course, in both instances he was boosted by an energized grassroots and the support of wealthy Tea Party backers. They encouraged, or, more likely were encouraged by, his hard-line rhetoric on any number of issues. (Who wrote the talking points remains the question.)

Regardless of what he may actually believe, when looking for a quick political ascendency, look no further then the Texas GOP grassroots and their wealthy backers for advice. From state representative to one-term state senator to the state’s top law enforcement office,he got what he wanted.

Sadly Paxton’s carelessness, irresponsibility and smugness did not end with an admission or a fine, much less at the door of his private practice. He has also taken those traits to his taxpayer-funded office.

Following Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, his office issued the requisite statement denouncing the decision. He also predictably, following April’s arguments, released a statement defending the state’s marriage ban.

Despite it being out of his responsibility, he then issued an opinion permitting county clerks and other government officials to decline to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if it violates their religious beliefs. While responsibly acknowledging clerks may be held liable, he sealed the fundraising envelope when he offered pro bono legal defense to any clerk mired in litigation for the decision. Religious liberty is an inherent right extended to all individuals, including those who genuinely oppose or support same-sex marriage for those reasons.

Even if you disagree politically or morally, issuing a marriage license does not mean you are sanctioning it. You cannot flout federal law.

Sadly that’s not what he told county clerks and potential donors across the state.

Between his politicization of his office and clear disregard for the law as represented by the pending criminal probe and irresponsible opinion on marriage equality, it has become clear Paxton is unfit for office. But in using Paxton’s logic, I can only conclude two things: breaking the law doesn’t violate his religious convictions, but resigning does. Whether or not a criminal indictment decides his professional fate in spite of any religious convictions, however, is an entirely different matter.

—  James Russell

North Carolina legislature overrides veto for LGBT discrimination bill

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Gov. Pat McCrory

The North Carolina Legislature overrode a veto by North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory today (Thursday, June 11) of a so-called religious freedom bill that allows discrimination against gays and lesbians in the state.

The law will allow state officials opt out of doing their jobs by signing a statement about their “deeply held religious beliefs.”

While the governor expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage, he said, “we are a nation and a state of laws.”

The law will cause delays for same-sex couples trying to get married, especially in rural areas.

North Carolina became a marriage equality state with other 4th Circuit states West Virginia and South Carolina on Oct. 8, 2014.

—  David Taffet

BREAKING: Accord reached on Pastor Protection Act, guaranteeing religious freedom and marriage equality

Texas-CapitolA bill reaffirming the rights of clergy to refuse to perform marriages — including same-sex marriages — that violate their religious beliefs has passed in the Texas House on a bipartisan vote, after its sponsor reassured legislators clergy may only refuse to perform those marriages in their official capacity.

SB 2065 passed 141-2 after questions about whether clergy members who also serve as county clerks, justices of the peace or in other government capacities may deny licenses to same-sex couples, interfaith couples and other couples they may find objectionable.

In a moving statement before its passage, openly lesbian Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, commended the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, for carrying it. She told the floor she believes LGBT justice and religious freedom may coexist.

Despite rumors that Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, intended to try and attach his anti-gay HB 4105 to Sanford’s bill as an amendment, the amendment never came. HB 4105 would have withheld pay from county clerks issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It died last week without coming to a vote.

—  James Russell

UPDATE: Bill protecting clergy from performing same sex marriages passes Senate 21-10

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Sen. Craig Estes, R- Wichita Falls, authored SB 2065.

SB 2065 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, which would protect clergy members from performing same-sex marriages passed 21-10.

The ACLU, Equality Texas and Texas Freedom Network advocated for language that a clergy member may only refuse to officiate marriages that violate their conscience “in that official capacity” failed. Despite their efforts Estes refused in both the State Affairs committee hearing and on the floor to add the language.

Without the four words, they argued, faith leaders may be able to deny same-sex marriage licenses if they serve in a secular capacity, such as justice of the piece or county clerk.

Proponents, including numerous conservative faith leaders, argued the bill was necessary to protect their right to deny performing a same-sex marriage.

“The First Amendment already protects clergy from being forced to officiate religious ceremonies that violate their consciences, so it’s unnecessary to pass a bill to protect against this,” said Sarah Jones, a communications associate with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “But if a member of the clergy accepts a job as a public official, they have a duty to uphold the laws of the state and municipality in which they serve, and should treat all people equally and fairly.

The bill’s passage comes ahead of a summer Supreme Court hearing on marriage equality.

The Senate will make one final procedural vote tomorrow (Tuesday, May 12) when the House votes on its companion, HB 3567 by Rep. Scott Sanford. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, previously said he intends to sign the bill.

—  James Russell

To RFRA or not

Religious liberty bills promise freedom, but for whom?

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JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

In a 1989 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, involving two men who were fired for smoking peyote as part of a sacred Native American ritual and then denied state unemployment benefits, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a lower court ruling declaring that the two were not fired out of religious bias but because they violated state drug laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the Oregon Supreme Court to decide if a state could deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes? The Oregon Supreme Court ultimately sided, in a 6-3 decision, with Oregon’s Employment Division.

That ruling concerned both secular civil libertarians and those with deeply held religious beliefs, said Elizabeth Oldmixon, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas in Denton. A broad coalition then worked with Congress to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

That bill, said Oldmixon, told the Supreme Court that in such cases, to give the benefit of the doubt to the plaintiffs, not the government.

Among the groups in that earlier coalition was Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan educational organization that preserves church-state separation.

Today that group is actively involved in debate over state versions of religious freedom restoration bills popping up in legislatures across the country, primarily in response to court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage and an upcoming decision from the U.S. Supreme Court expected to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.

The first RFRA to pass and be signed into law this year came in Indiana. Gov. Mike Pence signed that bill on Thursday, March 26.

Sarah Jones, AU’s communications associate, said the federal RFRA “passed as a shield to protect religious minorities, such as non-theists, Muslims and Jews. It strikes a balance between religious expression and the federal government’s interest in enforcing laws.”

But the federal law soon fell under scrutiny again, when the Supreme Court again struck down a portion of the 1997 Boerne v Flores ruling, said Chicago Kent College of Law Professor Sheldon H. Nahmod. That case asked whether or not the city of Boerne, Texas could prevent a Catholic church from expanding because of historical landmark and preservation laws. The court ruled for the church.

Striking RFRA’s application to state and local governments left only the federal application intact, Nahmod explained. Then another act of Congress resulted in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed by President Clinton in 2000.

That ruling set a precedent for another Supreme Court ruling, however.

In 2012, Hobby Lobby, the national arts and crafts chain, sued the federal government over a provision in the Patient Protection and Affordable  Care Act requiring employers to provide contraception coverage. Hobby Lobby v Burwell claimed covering contraception was a violation of the chain’s owners’ religious beliefs under the RFRA.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby.

What conservative groups praised about the ruling, others panned.

At the state level
If one term could sum up the dispute between the two factions in the battle over state religious freedom laws, it’s “broad.” In the Burwell case, the term means either an unconstitutional overreach or a victory for religious liberty.

Supporters of current religious liberty bills, said Jones, “claim they just reaffirm what the federal bill already says. That isn’t true. These state level bills are written much more broadly and contain discriminatory provisions that aren’t present in the federal bills.”

She said additionally the Hobby Lobby decision ultimately “granted special privileges. One of the most common ‘special privileges’ is allowing small businesses the right to discriminate against customers, such as same-sex couples.”

But Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, author of the Texas bill — HJR 125 — disagreed. Krause, a lawyer, interprets the federal RFRA much like Oldmixon or Jones. In written answers emailed to him, Krause said the federal RFRA “walks that fine line by asserting that the federal government can only burden the free exercise of religion (or conscience) if it has a compelling interest in doing so and it’s done in the least restrictive means possible. It gives citizens a cause of action to challenge the actions of government in these certain contexts.”

The bill, if enacted, he wrote, would codify in the state Constitution the state’s current religious freedom act, which passed in 1999.

In its current state, according to the Texas Freedom Network, the Texas RFRA bars measures that “substantially burden” the free exercise of religion. In addition, it includes other carefully crafted language that has helped avoid unnecessary lawsuits while providing various remedies and ensuring that the law is not abused. It currently mirrors the federal RFRA.

Passage of HJR 125 would change nothing, according to Krause.

“All I am trying to do is give our Texas RFRA constitutional protection,” he wrote. “There were efforts to make Texas’ RFRA language constitutional as far back as two sessions ago. It’s important to remember this is not a reaction to recent events … before we had any instances of bakers, florists or photographers. The intent was by no means an ‘intent to discriminate’ or ‘license to discriminate’ but rather good policy that has served Texas well for over a decade and it deserved constitutional protection.”

Selisse Berry, founder and CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, is convinced that bills like Krause’s and its Senate companion, HJR 10 by Sen. Donna Campbell, are discriminatory.

“It reminds me of people of color not being served. It’s an overall sad state of affairs, especially given the advances of LGBT workplace equality,” she said by phone.

After signing Indiana’s religious freedom bill into law amidst backlash from a wide variety of groups, Gov. Mike Pence asked that state’s legislature to assure discrimination against LGBT people will not be allowed. But, if Krause and others said discrimination is not their intention, are activists wrong about the RFRAs?

Chicago Kent’s Nahmod said it’s difficult to tell if these pieces of legislation are motivated by anti-LGBT animus.

“Indiana doesn’t have a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance,” he said, and while it could be argued signing the RFRA was a last-ditch push to prevent passage of a statewide nondiscrimination ordinance, that can’t be proven.

“But if discrimination is the intention, then they may be seriously unconstitutional,” Nahmod said.

But Berry disagreed.

“It’s naïve to say Pence’s decision to sign the bill was not motivated by discrimination,” she said. “Whether [these bills are] intentionally meant to discriminate or not, it’s clear the LGBT community needs a federal nondiscrimination ordinance,” she said. “We have state and city nondiscrimination ordinances [but] we still need a federal law to protect LGBT people.”

……………………

Religious liberty bills currently under consideration in the Texas Legislature include:

• HB 3567 by Rep. Scott Sanford. Would prevent the government from punishing a clergy member  or person of faith who does not perform same-sex marriages.

• HB 3864, also by Rep. Sanford. Would allow child welfare organizations to deny care to children of LGBT parents based on religious beliefs. Sen. Donna Campbell filed its Senate companion, SB 1935.

• HB 3602 by Rep. Cecil Bell. Would bar retaliation against “conscientious objectors” who refuse to perform same-sex marriages. SB 1799 by Sen. Larry Taylor contains similar language.

• HB 55 by Rep. Jason Villalba and SJR 10 by Sen. Campbell. Would allow Texas’ businesses to refuse service or deny employment to LGBT people based on individual’s or religious organization’s beliefs. Villalba has since said he would reconsider his resolution, but Rep. Matt Krause filed the identical HJR 125 late on March 12.

• HB 2553 by Rep. Molly White. Would allow business owners to decide whom they serve or conduct business with based on religious convictions.

• HB 1355 by Rep. Matt Shaheen. Would make it a criminal offense for an elected official to threaten, punish or intimidate a person based on the person’s religious beliefs.

— James Russell

 

—  James Russell

BREAKING: Hutchinson won’t sign Arkansas ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced that he will not sign the “religious freedom” bill passed by lawmakers in his state last night, saying that he will instead send the measure back to the state Legislature for changes to make sure that it mirrors a federal law already in place, CNN is reporting.

Hutchinson said he made his decision because he wants Arkansas to be “known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance.”

He also said he is considering issuing an executive order than bans discrimination in the state’s workforce.

Hutchinson had initially said he would sign the religious freedom bill into law. His change of heart came following the firestorm that has erupted over a similar bill signed into law last week by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and after the CEO of WalMart, Arkansas’ largest business, issued a statement urging Hutchinson to veto the bill.

Hutchinson said, “The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions. It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

CNN notes that Hutchinson said his own son, signed a petition urging him not to sign the bill.

—  Tammye Nash

Mississippi passes anti-gay hate law

mississippi-flag-e1387132309472The Mississippi Legislature passed an anti-gay “religious freedom” bill on Tuesday  similar to the one vetoed in Arizona. The law legalizes anti-gay discrimination as long as it’s done in the name of religion.

The bill that passed was rewritten after the Arizona bill was vetoed. The blatant anti-gay animus was removed. The new bill is simply written ambiguously so that there’s nothing unconstitutional about its wording. However, if anyone tries to use the law to justify discrimination, courts could strike it down as written only because of extreme animus against the LGBT community.

“The language still exposes virtually every branch, office and agency of the government to litigation, which will require taxpayer funds to defend,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Eunice Rho told MSNBC.

Wording of the bill is modeled after the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That law, though, passed by a bipartisan coalition, was not intended to encourage discrimination or limit anyone’s civil rights.

The bill awaits the governor’s signature.

—  David Taffet

Reaching industrial-strength level of crazy

As right-wing anti-LGBT rhetoric  gets further ‘out there,’ we must step up to counter it

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association

 

Hardy Haberman
Flagging Left

I guess it wasn’t enough that the right-wing crazies tried to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, now they have come up with the argument that giving LGBT people equal rights is an assault on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Funny, I never remember asking anyone to change their religion or to stop speaking, no matter how crazy they are.

I hold freedom of speech very near and dear to my heart. In fact it is one of my core values.

And religious freedom? Well you have the right to preach and believe anything you want, until you begin advocating violence against other citizens.

That is where the whole issue of LGBT rights breaks down for the far right. If they are not “free” to advocate outright physical assaults on LGBT Americans, they somehow feel it is impinging on their freedom.

Does this sound a lot like the anti-abortion crowd who advocate murdering doctors and blowing up clinics? Though they would be the first to deny it, they are cut from the same cloth.

Funny how these same folks are among the first to point fingers at all Muslims and cry “Terrorists!” In fact our friend from north of the border, Rep. Sally Kern of Oklahoma, has actually said that LGBT people are more dangerous than terrorists.

I really see all this as another attempt to re-frame the issue of LGBT rights by the right wing. They know that opinions in America are changing, and as a recent poll showed, even here in Texas an overwhelming majority of registered voters support expanded civil rights for LGBT Texans.

It is a rising tide and it scares them, and so they crank up the rhetoric.

Bryan Fischer, a mouthpiece of the American Family Association drove the point home with this gem delivered at the recent AFA-sponsored Values Voters Summit, attended by all of the main Republican presidential candidates:

“I believe we need a president who understands that just as Islam represents the greatest long-range threat to our liberty, so the homosexual agenda represents the greatest immediate threat to every freedom and right that is enshrined in the First Amendment. It’s a particular threat to religious liberty… .”

Now, if you have trouble understanding this strange equation, “LGBT rights = no religious liberty,” then let me explain the twisted logic.

The far right believes:

• We are a Christian nation, but only the fundamentalist, fire-breathing born-again variety of Christian.

• “Free speech” means “the right to attack, abuse and in general deny rights to anyone other than predominately white Christian Americans.” (See above for definition of “Christian.”)

• Limiting the ability to discriminate against LGBT people, particularly in areas that involve legal representation and equal rights, is a limit on free speech.

• Granting LGBT people equal legal rights “will end Western Civilization.” (That is a quote from Liberty Council’s Mat Staver.)

And so with this kind of logic it’s easy to see how we LGBT folks are such dangerous threats.

Now, take it a few steps further — which Bryan Fischer is more than willing to do — and go after the recent “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal. Fischer’s vivid imagination comes up with this whopper:

“And so, I’m predicting that things are about to get very ugly in the United States military for people of faith. We are going to see principle-driven officers, one after another, are going to become victims of systematic hate crimes. This is going to be a pogrom; this is going to be virtual genocide, military genocide, career genocide for people of faith in the military, perpetrated by the homosexual lobby.”

Now we have indeed reached the level of “industrial-strength crazy,” and it’s time we take a stand against it.

First of all, the idea that the American Family Association (a recognized hate group) can actually somehow have a lock on what it means to be “people of faith” is beyond laughable. It’s time liberal, progressive Christians came out of the closet and began reclaiming the word “Christian,” before it is too late.

Secondly, the idea that all the major candidates for the GOP presidential race showed up at an event staged by a hate group should put to bed forever the idea that the Republican Party is a big tent, unless that tent is for a fundamentalist revival.

Third, it’s time we realized that not only are these folks nutty, they are dangerous, and though it is easy to laugh at them, we need to take them seriously.

To do otherwise is just plain crazy.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a board member of the Woodhull Freedom Alliance. His blog is at DungeonDiary.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Catholics For Equality urging support for marriage equality bill in Maryland

The Maryland House of Delegates is expected to take up consideration of the same-sex marriage bill there about 11 a.m. (Eastern Standard Time, I assume) on Friday, and according to Maryland Catholics for Equality, “out-of-state anti-gay calls are flooding Annapolis” to try and get the bill defeated.

So the organization is urging pro-equality Maryland residents to be sure and call their delegates to counteract the anti-gay forces.

In an e-mail that just hit my inbox, Maryland Catholics for Equality say: “Call NOW and let your Delegates know three important things: you are an actual constituent (not out of state), you are Catholic, and that you stand with the majority of Catholics in Maryland in support of HB175 — Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. Ask them not to bow down to out of state pressure.”

The measure has already passed the Maryland Senate and Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he will sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk. But things are close in the House of Delegates, where the bill was initially expected to pass easily.

If you aren’t a resident of Maryland, don’t cheat by calling the delegates and saying you are. But keep an eye on Instant Tea tomorrow, and we’ll let you know what happens.

—  admin

Polygamy, Sharia law cited as reasons to repeal marriage equality in New Hampshire

Supporters of marriage equality wore red to Thursday’s hearing. (From HRC)

Back in 2009, when Democrats controlled the New Hampshire Legislature, lawmakers there voted to give legal recognition to same-sex marriages. Gov. John Lynch signed the legislation into law.

Now, two years later, Republicans control the Legislature in New Hampshire, and are considering a bill to repeal marriage equality in the state. On Thursday, the House of Representatives held a public hearing to get citizens’ input on the repeal effort. More than 500 people were there to oppose repeal while less than 50 showed up to support repeal.

While the supporters were far fewer in number, their arguments are getting a lot of attention in the press today — because those arguments were so totally asinine.

One guy claimed that allowing legal same-sex marriage would open the door to polygamy and Sharia (Islamic religious) law in the U.S. Rep. Alfred Baldasaro claimed that New Hampshire would end up like Canada, which legalized same-sex marriage several years ago and now “they’re fighting in the courts to get three husbands, three wives.”

And Sen. Fenton Groen brought up the age-old indoctrinating-the-children and “health risk” bugaboos: “[Homosexuality] will significantly increase their risk of serious disease and can be expected to significantly shorten their lives.”

The National Organization for Marriage’s Maggie Gallagher was there, of course, spouting her usual nonsense about marriage being specifically about raising children and how same-sex marriage would infringe on religious freedom.

For more, check out jpmassar’s post at Daily Kos or watch the video after the jump compiled by Igor Volsky at Think Progress.

Just so you know, John Lynch is still governor of New Hampshire, and he has said if the repeal bill is passed by the Legislature, he will veto it, although Republicans have a supermajority in both legislative houses and could override a veto. On the other hand, the House committee considering the repeal measure is expected to vote to “retain” it, which means hold the bill over until the next legislative session (which starts next January) and not vote on it this time around.

—  admin