To RFRA or not

Religious liberty bills promise freedom, but for whom?

House-Bills-art

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

ONGOING: Burton, Willis, others respond to anti-LGBT mailer

The candidates for the open state Senate district 10, a swing district covering a portion of Tarrant County, have responded to an anti-LGBT mailer released by the mysterious group known as the “National Family Council.” I initially posted the responses from late Monday in ongoing updates here. But given both candidates have different takes on it, and other groups have since responded, I feel they warrant reposting. First, here are the mailers in question:

AFC Side 2AFC Side 1

Luke Macias, spokesperson for Republican Konni Burton, of Colleyville: “Our campaign is not affiliated with the group that sent this mail piece in any way. Throughout the campaign we have made it clear that the most important issues facing the people of SD 10 are securing the border, providing quality public education, and prioritizing transportation in our budget. We are unaware of who sent the mailer, as the group claiming credit has no website, no telephone number, and only a mailing address. We don’t plan for third-party mailers sent from Virginia to be a distraction in the final week of this race. Our campaign will continue to advocate for the issues the voters of SD 10 care about.”

Democrat Libby Willis, of Fort Worth, in a statement: “It’s unfortunate, but not surprising, that Konni Burton would resort to desperate, hateful attacks from out-of-state groups. That might be why the Star-Telegram said ‘it is not clear how well she would or could represent the diverse population of the district.’ I am proud to have the support of the Texas Equity PAC because in the Texas Senate, it will be my priority to work for every Texan.”

Other groups responded as well.

Texas Equity PAC president Eric Johnson, of Dallas, said: “An out-of-state, anonymous PAC has attacked because of our support. In these remaining days leading up to Election Day, real Texans and real Texas values will stand up for what’s right. They will support equality and shun extremism. The Texas Equity PAC supports Libby Willis because she supports not only LGBT Texans, but all Texans.”

The PAC mistakenly calls out Equality Texas for its support of Willis. Equality Texas does not endorse candidates. Texas Equity PAC does however–including Sarah Davis, a Republican state representative from Houston.

Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said in a statement: “These kinds of hateful campaign tactics represent politics at its worst,” Miller said. “To smear a candidate because she supports equality for everyone is shameful and out of step with Texas voters who are leaving that kind of bigotry in the past.”

Texas Freedom Network is “a nonpartisan, grassroots organization of religious and community leaders who support religious freedom, individual liberties and public education” based in Austin.

 

—  James Russell

TX pastor tells flock how God wants them to vote in school board races

Washburn.Steve

Steve Washburn

Steve Washburn, senior pastor of Pflugerville’s First Baptist Church, has written a letter to congregants saying God wants them to vote against two school board candidates who supported offering domestic partner benefits to district employees:

In any election, there is only one question we need to answer: “For which candidates does GOD want me to vote?” As followers of Jesus, we vote for HIS priorities, not our priorities. That means we are always, first and foremost – “Christian Moral Values Voters.” We vote for the candidates who best represent and defend the Lord’s moral values as He reveals them in Scripture. …

Although there are a number of issues being discussed by all candidates, our primary concern revolves around the previous decision of the PISD School Board to extend health insurance benefits to “domestic partners.” This provision allows employees of PISD to include immoral sexual partners (heterosexual and homosexual) in their medical insurance benefit plan as though they were legal spouses. We are to vote for the candidates in Place #3 and Place #5 who will oppose this decision. If you are unclear where the various candidates stand on this issue, please call a friend who may be more familiar, or research your decision on-line.

The Texas Freedom Network, which counters the religious right’s influence in Texas schools, notes that Washburn’s letter was written a day after Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion saying DP benefits are illegal under the state’s marriage amendment. TFN has endorsed the two Pflugerville school board incumbents, Mario Acosta and Carol Fletcher, who voted in favor of DP benefits:

As we’ve already said, the Pflugerville election has become a referendum on equality. And the election is important not just for Pflugerville ISD. Its results could influence how other school districts and local governments approach the issue of benefits for employees and their families. The Texas Freedom Network has proudly endorsed Acosta and Fletcher for courageously choosing to treat all of the district’s employees with equality and dignity. Washburn’s letter, on the other hand, is yet another disturbing example of the religious right using faith as a political weapon to divide our communities.

—  John Wright

San Antonio SBOE candidate who created 10-step plan to prevent GSAs thanks anti-gay hate group

David Williams

Texas State Board of Education candidate David Williams, a Republican running for the seat held by Democrat Michael Soto, has made public his view that gays can change their sexuality.

The buzz about Williams’ remarks started last week when the Texas Freedom Network reported that he had posted a comment on the Family Research Council’s Facebook page about being proud of the fact that a Gay Straight Alliance at his son’s school in 2006 was rejected as a new club by the student council. Williams was then a public school teacher in Oklahoma. He is now a middle school math teacher at a private school in San Antonio, according to his campaign website.

FRC’a anti-gay views have led it to be identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In the post, Williams thanks the organization for its “support for the traditional family” before mentioning that “prayer and community action” led to the GSA’s rejection, mentioning that God has led him to run for the SBOE seat. “The Lord has given me a new mission, to run for the Texas State Board of Education. Please pray for me and thank you for being a voice up there for those of us out here.”

Williams emailed TFN on Monday in response to the report that he was anti-gay because he was happy the GSA’s creation was blocked, writing that the “GSA was voted down by students in order to be fair to ex-gays that found change is possible. Students were presented the several scientific views on the origins of same sex attraction and did not think a GSA to support one view only was needed.”

In the email to TFN, Williams also linked to an article on the website of Parents and Friends of Exgays and Gays about the GSA situation years ago, mentioning his leadership position as mid-Oklahoma representative for Christian Educators Association International and his creation of a 10-step plan “to deal with homosexual activism in schools.”

—  Dallasvoice

“Religion in the 2012 Election” at Rice

Leonard Pitts

Leonard Pitts

Growing up, I was taught that there were two topics it was important to avoid in polite conversation: politics and religion (ironic since my career thus far has included working for churches and blogging about politics). Increasingly, it seems, it’s impossible to talk about one of those topics without bringing up the other. That intersection (some might say collision) is the topic for “Religion in the 2012 Election” a free public symposium this Wednesday, January 25 at  James A. Baker III Hall at Rice University (6100 Main) from 1 to 4:30 pm.

The symposium includes speakers on a variety of topics including religion and immigration, Islamophobia, religion and science, abortion and LGBT equality. Speakers include John Green, a senior research adviser at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life; D. Michael Lindsay, author and president of Gordon College; Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts; Anna Greenberg of the national public opinion research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and scholars from the James A. Baker III Institute and Rice University.

Pitts will also appear at Congregation Emanu El (1500 Sunset) Wednesday evening at 7 pm for a special presentation sponsored by The Texas Freedom Network. Tickets to Pitts’ speech are $20 and may be purchased at tfn.org/symposium.

The symposium kicks off with a panel discussion focusing particularly on the various ways religious issues and candidates’ beliefs are influencing the 2012 presidential race. All panels are free and open to the public, but registration is required. Visit tfn.org/symposium to register. “Religion in the 2012 Election”  is co-sponsored by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the Rice University Religion and Public Life Program and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a public policy research and civic education organization based in Austin.

—  admin

Did a Republican member of the Texas State Board of Education just come out as gay?

George Clayton

George Clayton, a Republican member of the State Board of Education from Richardson, sent an email to several news organizations last week that appears to confirm he’s gay.

Clayton is an academic coordinator at North Dallas High School, according to his bio on the Texas Education Agency website. He won the District 12 SBOE seat in 2010, when he defeated longtime Republican incumbent Geraldine “Tincy” Miller in the primary.

Clayton sent out his email in response to an apparent whisper campaign about his sexual orientation among Republicans in the district, which covers all of Collin County. Miller is trying to unseat Clayton and recapture her old seat in 2012.

“It has come to my attention that one of my opponents in my bid for reelection to the State Board of Education and certain member(s) of the Golden Corridor Republican Women’s Club are questioning my sexual orientation,” Clayton said in his email. “So as to avoid the tyranny of misinformation and innuendo in this political race, I wish to say that I, in fact, do have a male partner who lives with me in my home in Richardson, Texas. I hope this frank announcement satisfies Tincy Miller and the ladies associate with the Golden Corridor organization. All of us can now move on with discussions concerning education instead of being overly occupied with my personal life.”

According to the Texas Tribune, Miller claims she isn’t the one who brought up Clayton’s sexual orientation, but she noted that others have. The Texas Freedom Network reports that Susan Fletcher, president of the Golden Corridor Women’s Club, suggested in an email recently that Clayton’s personal life “needs to be investigated.” The TFN also notes that Clayton’s sexual orientation became the subject of rumors online last year.

Clayton’s email confirming that he’s gay has already prompted one right-winger, Donna Garner of Waco, to withdraw her endorsement of his re-election bid.

“If Clayton is indeed a homosexual, then we as voters must be concerned about re-electing him to the SBOE since the Board will soon begin the process of writing and adopting Health curriculum requirements for all Texas public school students,” Garner wrote.

Clayton, who would be the first known openly gay Republican elected official in Texas history, could not immediately be reached for comment.

More to come …

—  John Wright

Let’s talk about sex (education)

Texas Freedom Network Student Chapter at the U of H“Just a few years back, I was sitting in a Texas public school and had almost zero knowledge about my sexual health because no one wanted to talk to me about sex,” says James Lee, president of the Texas Freedom Network Student Chapter at the University of Houston. “You would think sex was a four letter word growing up in Texas. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of seeing friends of mine negatively affected by the lack of sexual education in our Texas schools.”

Which is why James and the the rest of the Student Chapter is bringing TFN’s Leadership Development Institute to the University of Houston on November 12. Among the topics covered will be an overview of the current state of sex education in Texas. The training also aims to teach participants how to develop a persuasive political message and to effectively organize at the grassroots level. The Institute explores organizing strategies such as issue education, voter registration and block-walking. Scheduled guest speakers include Susan Tortolero of the UT Houston School of Public Health, and representatives of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and the Texas Freedom Network.

James feels that the unwillingness to deal with sex education affects LGBT youth disproportionately. “For the most part, Texas schools teach abstinence until marriage sex education. In Texas it’s still not possible to be wed if you’re a lesbian or gay couple. So, when a gay student hears this kind of language they have less of an incentive to pay attention because they can not marry.” James adds “I have nieces and nephews who’re currently attending public school, I don’t want them to have to worry about some of the things my generation had to, they’re our future and we can’t let them down.”

Attendees to the Leadership Development Institute must register online to attend the free training, space is limited.

—  admin

Local briefs

Miller to speak at GLFD event

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will speak at the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Dallas membership kickoff event at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 13, in the Fifth Floor Owners’ Lounge at The House at Victory Park, 2200 Victory Park Ave.

GLFD raises money to support local organizations outside the LGBT community to raise the visibility of and awareness of philanthropy in the LGBT community. Among previous GLFD beneficiaries are The Women’s Museum, Parkland Hospital, the Latino Cultural Center, the Dallas Symphony and Southern Methodist University.

Until now, money was raised through donations and events. Now, GLFD is soliciting memberships. A basic annual membership fee is $50. For $200, the “Advocate” level also includes two invitations to an annual member appreciation event. The $500 “Philanthropic Partner” level also includes optional website recognition.

Anyone who would like to attend should email Keith Nix at knix@keithnix.com.

UUCOC offers grief workshop

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Oak Cliff, 3839 West Kiest Blvd., will begin a grief workshop series and a speakers forum next week.The workshop series is for those coping with loss, whether from the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship or termination from a job.

Hosted by the Rev. Mark Walz, the workshops will be lead by the Rev. Xolani Kecala, chaplain and affiliated minister of UUCOC.

Interested parties should call 214-337-2429 to reserve a space. The workshops take place Sept. 15 and Oct. 13.

The Second Wednesday Speaker’s Forum kicks off on Sept. 14 with Garrett Mize, Texas Freedom Network’s youth advocacy coordinator.

Mize’s efforts focus on engaging young people to become leaders in advocating for evidence-based, comprehensive sex education.

Light refreshments and discussion begin at 6:30 p.m. Mize’s presentation begins at 7 p.m. followed by a service from 8 p.m. to8:30 p.m. focusing on the evening’s topic.

Austin Pride to help wildfire victims

Austin Pride events scheduled for Saturday will continue as planned, despite wildfires that have ravaged surrounding counties this week. But in response to the fire, Pride organizers said they are organizing a clothing and non-perishable food drive with GoingUpDay.org to help those displaced by the fires, which have destroyed more than 1,300 homes, many in Bastrop County, just east of Austin.

Austin Pride takes place Saturday, Sept. 10 in downtown Austin at Riverside Drive and South 1st Street at 8 a.m. For more information, visit AustinPride.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 9, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Rick Perry hires campaign spokesman who once compared Log Cabin Republicans to the KKK

Robert Black (via Twitter)

The Texas Freedom Network notes that Gov. Rick Perry, who confirmed Thursday that he’s running for president, has tapped Robert Black to serve on his campaign communications team.

Black is a former Perry spokesman who’s currently an Austin consultant. He’s also the former communications director for the Texas Republican Party.

In 1998, after the party famously refused to grant Log Cabin Republicans a booth at the state convention in Fort Worth, Black called LCR a “deviant group” and likened them to the Klu Klux Klan.

“We don’t allow pedophiles, transvestites and cross- dressers, either,” Black said at the time, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Black didn’t back down from the statement when asked about it a few months later, according to the Austin Chronicle:

Black, still the party’s communications director, hasn’t budged much from his position in June: “Considering the traditional Republican principles against the homosexual lifestyle, we do not consider the gay vote to have that much of an effect on Republican politics.” What if a gay group wanted to back Republican candidates? Black: “I would guess, by and large, that most Republicans would not embrace an endorsement from a homosexual organization.”

—  John Wright

Gov. Perry wages war on Christmas. Shouldn’t he be on First Baptist Church’s ‘Naughty List’?

Pastor Robert Jeffress needs to give Gov. Rick Perry a big spanking, or maybe a lump of something that’s rock hard. That’s because Perry has been a naughty, naughty boy and once again left out any mention of Christmas in his family’s holiday card. Needless to say, Instant Tea didn’t actually receive one of these, but according to the Texas Freedom Network, the card is shown above. And as you can see, it says, “We wish you Joy from our hearts.” Joy my ass. There appears to be a Psalm at the bottom, but if you think that counts, you’ve obviously made some sort of deal with the Devil. Perry himself has accused the American Civil Liberties Union of waging “war on Christmas.” And, of course, he’s closely tied to a lot of the nutjobs like Jeffress who have weird sexual fantasies involving the Grinch. So why hasn’t anyone said anything about this card, the TFN wonders:

So where are the howls of protest from the religious right about Gov. Perry’s personal “war on Christmas”? We hear nothing but crickets chirping. Why? Because groups like AFA and Liberty Institute aren’t serious. Their “war on Christmas” nonsense is just a gimmick — one that uses faith as a political weapon to divide Americans and to raise more money. ‘Tis the season to be a hypocrite, apparently.

—  John Wright