‘Religious refusal’ one step closer to passing the Senate

Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller

The Texas Senate, which has already approved Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s ridiculous and discriminatory bathroom bill — SB 6 — today (Tuesday April 11) approved, on second reading, SB 522, which would allow Texas county clerks and other public officials and employees the right not to issue a marriage license or conduct, as part of their official civil responsibilities, a marriage ceremony to which they have religious objections.

The bill, introduced by Granbury Republican Brian Birdwell, still must pass the Senate on third reading before being sent to the House.

While the bill was obviously intended to let right-wing county clerks and other right-wing public officials defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling on marriage equality, as the Texas Freedom Network pointed out last month, the measure “would allow public officials to discriminate against virtually anyone.”

Today, TFN President Kathy Miller issued this statement after the Senate vote:

“The Senate under Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s leadership has clearly become the center of intolerance and discrimination in Texas government. … [The Senate] today said it has no problem with public officials picking and choosing which taxpayers they will serve. This bill opens the door to taxpayer-funded discrimination against virtually anyone who doesn’t meet a public official’s personal moral standards. That means same-sex couples, divorced people, women who have children outside of marriage and many others could be treated like second-class citizens by the very people whose salaries they pay with their tax dollars. That’s discrimination, not religious freedom.”

Miller noted there are 17 so-called “religious refusal” bills that have been filed in this legislative session.

Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, issued this statement:

“Religious liberty is an organizing principle of American democracy and the birthright of every Texan. Our constitution and state laws already protect that right. Redefining religious liberty will allow people to take advantage and claim that their religion gives them the right to ignore existing laws or not perform the duties of their job. SB 522 promotes taxpayer-funded discrimination and would allow for unequal treatment under the law. In the end, this is not about religious liberty; it’s about discrimination. A clerk or government official should not be exempted from their duties simply because they do not share another person’s religious belief.”

Today’s vote was 21-10. I haven’t found a breakdown yet telling who voted how, but at least one Democrat voted for the bill.

—  Tammye Nash

Hearing set on anti-LGBT HB 3859, a ‘religious refusal’ bill

The Texas House State Affairs Committee is holding a hearing tomorrow (Wednesday, March 29), at 10:30 a.m. in Room 140 of the John H. Reagan Building, on HB 3859, which would allow child welfare providers that contract with the state to discriminate against LGBT families in foster care and adoptive placements.

So if you care about the well-being of children in the Texas foster care system and those up for adoption, and if you care about the rights LGBT Texans, you might want to think about heading to Austin tomorrow for that hearing.

The bill was introduced by Wichita Republican Rep. James Frank.

Ali Lozano, outreach and field coordinator for Texas Freedom Network, said that HB 3859 is one of “at least 17 bills” filed in this session of the Texas Legislature that would allow people to use their personal “religious beliefs” to discriminate against LGBT people.

“This is our first chance to reject this perversion of religious freedom,” Lozano said in an email message. “If we are going to stop this and other ‘religious refusal’ bills, we’ve got to turn out and resist in the same numbers and with the same fervor as we did for SB 6 (aka, the ‘bathroom bill’).”

Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith reiterated that urgency.

“Using religion to refuse service to LGBTQ people is discrimination,” Smith said in a separate email. “The primary consideration for a child welfare agency or organization and its employees should always be the best interests of the child — not advancing the interests or beliefs of a state contractor. HB 3859 would allow the religious beliefs of child-placing agencies to be placed above the needs of our most vulnerable children. That could jeopardize the health and well-being of children in our system.”

Smith also pointed out that HB 3859 would allow state contractors to discriminate against single or divorced people, interfaith couples people of different religious faiths or denominations.

“This is morally wrong and legally problematic,” Smith said, ending with a plea to those that oppose the bill to “come to the Capitol complex … and register in opposition to HB 3859.”

Go here to watch a short video on how to register in opposition to the bill.

Equality Texas offers these talking points for anyone interested in testifying against the bill.

This page allows you to rush a message to members of the State Affairs committee urging them to oppose HB 3859, and this one lets you send a message urging your representative to oppose all of the anti-LGBT religious refusal bills.

—  Tammye Nash

Texas Republicans slam business association for opposing ‘bathroom’ bill, ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Texas lawmakers, from left, Sen. Kelly Hancock and Reps. Matt Shaheen and Jonathan Stickland are intent on ignoring warnings from the Texas Association of Business that so-called “bathroom bills” and “religious freedom bills” could cost the state millions in lost revenue.

By James Russell, Contributing Writer

You’d think when a major business association traditionally allied with Republicans releases a study suggesting certain proposed laws could negatively impact a state, Republican lawmakers in that state would listen. Especially given lawmakers are working with a tight budget next session.

Nope.

That happened earlier this week when a study commissioned by the Texas Association of Business revealed the potential economic impact “bathroom” and “religious freedom” bills could have on the state. The report, conducted by researchers at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said that religious freedom bills and “bathroom” bills proposed by right-wing lawmakers in the Texas Legislature could cost the state between $964 million to $8.5 billion and lead to significant job losses — as high as 185,000 jobs.

The report culls data from the impact of similar bills passed in other states, including Arkansas, Indiana and North Carolina.

Indiana Gov. and Vice President-elect Mike Pence signed into law that state’s RFRA last year. The bill would have allowed business owners to deny services based on religious convictions, much to the dismay of activists who said it unfairly discriminated against LGBTQ people. Pence hesitantly amended the bill to include LGBTQ protections after threats from businesses and LGBTQ advocates.

North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” most notably barred transgender people from using the bathroom according to their gender identity. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory lost his re-election bid last month due in part to the fallout from the legislation, and the state has lost millions of dollars in revenue as businesses and events have pulled out of North Carolina.

But to some conservative Texas legislators, the report is just a bunch of bullshit.

“TAB supports a new radical agenda that places the safety and privacy of women and young girls at risk by forcing them to share locker rooms and restrooms with men through government regulation,” wrote Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, in the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Bedford Republican, tweeted that the study is “trash and misinfo.”

Sen. Kelly Hancock, who represents parts of northeast Tarrant County, tweeted that the business organization “got the study they paid for and bullied conservative and female members into submission.”

Hancock’s position as chair of the senate’s business and commerce committee, tasked with overseeing business regulations in the state, also puts him in direct conflict with the TAB, the state’s most powerful business lobby.

But Hancock has plenty of allies, including his boss, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the state’s leading cultural warrior who put the bathroom bill among his top 10 legislative priorities, ahead of reforming the state’s child welfare system. The Women’s Privacy Act, as it is called, is not anti-transgender; it’d simply protect women from men who want to assault them in bathrooms and locker rooms, Patrick claims. But critics argue the bill is all about barring transpeople from using the bathroom in accordance with their gender identity.

Shaheen has already filed a House version of the bill. His boss, Speaker Joe Straus, recently said the legislation is not a priority however.

(I’d check if Sen. Konni Burton of Colleyville tweeted about it, but alas, she blocked me.) Just today, two business-backed groups closely aligned with Hancock, Shaheen and Stickland went on the record saying they have no stance on the legislation. (Full disclosure: I write for Quorum Report.)

But it is clear scapegoating transgender and gender nonconforming people is a priority in 2017. After all, bashing them protects the children.

—  Tammye Nash

Judge blocks Mississippi’s ‘religious freedom’ law

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves issued a ruling blocking Mississippi’s so-called “religious freedom law,” just minutes before it was set to go into effect, according to reports by Mississippi Today.

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Judge Carlton Reeves

In an article by Larrison Campbell, the digital news source says:

“In a blistering opinion that reached into Mississippi’s segregationist past, U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Reeves said House Bill 1523, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant in April, was another unfortunate example of Mississippi trying to write discrimination into its laws.

“‘Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together. But HB 1523 does not honor that tradition of religion freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens,’ Reeves wrote in his opinion.”

Gov. Bryant said HB 1523 “simply provides religious accommodations granted by many other states and federal law,” and that he is “disappointed Judge Reeves did not recognize that reality.” He also said he looks forward to “an aggressive appeal” of the ruling.

But Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had a different take. He told Mississippi Today that the “churchgoing public was duped into believing that HB1523 protected religious freedoms,” adding, “Our state leaders attempted to mislead pastors into believing that if this bill were not passed, they would have to preside over gay wedding ceremonies.  No court case has ever said a pastor did not have discretion to refuse to marry any couple for any reason.  I hate to see politicians continue to prey on people who pray, go to church, follow the law and help their fellow man.”

Mississippi Today explains that “House Bill 1523 singles out three ‘sincerely held’ religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth. The law protects from litigation anyone who speaks out against gay marriage or transgender individuals because of these beliefs.”

Earlier this week, Judge Reeves struck down a portion of the law that allowed the state’s county clerks to refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples based on the clerks’ “sincerely-held” religious beliefs.

—  Tammye Nash

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signs ‘religious freedom’ bill

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Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant

You would think that what is happening in North Carolina — boycotts, etc. — after Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law discriminatory legislation would have served as a lesson to other states considering similar laws. But apparently not. It seems that — at least in some places — bigotry continues to outweigh fairness, business sense and common sense. Case in point, Mississippi:

“Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed the state’s religious freedom bill Tuesday, according to a statement tweeted to his account. Watchdog groups have decried the bill as discriminatory against the LGBT community, while proponents say it’s intended only to protect those with strongly held religious beliefs. Bryant said he signed the law ‘to protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals, organizations and private associations from discriminatory action by state government.'” (Breaking news just posted online by WAPT Channel 16 in Jackson, Miss.)

—  Tammye Nash

Missouri GOP ends Democratic filibuster of religious freedom bill

Missouri state senateMissouri Republican senators have broken a 39-hour Democratic filibuster and passed a resolution allowing individuals and small businesses to deny service to LGBT people and others who violate “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The First Amendment Defense Act passed 23-9 and now heads to the state House, where it is expected to pass as well. Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, voiced opposition to the bill but has little control over its fate.

It will go before voters this fall.

 

—  James Russell

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