Even the staffs of anti-gay Republicans were friendly, participants say


TESTING FAITH | The Rev. Colleen Darraugh and Todd Whitley pause for a photo outside Sen. Don Huffines’ office (below). Members of the Texas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry pause for prayer. (James Russell/Dallas Voice)


JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

Neither Senate Bill 343 nor House Joint Resolution 10 nor Rep. Molly White could prevent hundreds of members of Texas’ faith community from descending upon the state Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 17, for Faith Advocacy Day. The daylong lobbying event sponsored by Equality Texas and Texas Freedom Network brought people of faith from across the state to Austin advocate for LGBT equality.

At a rally on the Capitol steps before the event, LGBT and allied clergy emphasized the need for people of faith to advocate for LGBT issues and urged attendees to visit TexasBelieves.org to sign up in support of LGBT equality and against discriminatory laws.

The Rev. Eric Folkerth of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas was among them. He stressed the importance of ending discrimination in the LGBT community.

“The idea that any [LGBT people] might be discriminated against under state or local laws is absolutely unacceptable,” Folkerth said. “Not only is this unacceptable to me as a minister of the Gospel, but it’s unacceptable to straight members of my congregation, who cannot fathom why any community in

Texas would discriminate against LGBT people.”

Advocacy-Day-2United Church of Christ minister Leslie Jackson of Houston advocated for marriage equality and against employment and housing discrimination. “Surely all of our diverse faith traditions and differing beliefs can come together around this simple value: having a roof over your head and keeping a job should not be based on what you look like or who you love,” Jackson said.

Despite the Republican dominance of the Texas Legislature, those participating in the lobby day said staff members of even the most virulently anti-LGBT rights legislators were friendly and receptive.

Lila Belitz, who attends Oak Cliff Unitarian Universalist Church, said she was impressed by the warm reception from staff members on her first visit. Even though she was not able to personally meet with legislators, the staff members she met were “open and respectful. It was a really great experience for my first time,” Belitz said.

Todd Whitley, Equality Texas’ communications manager, was also attending the event for his first time. He said the group’s distinct message was pivotal to its success, especially with more conservative Republicans. “We talked about [LGBT issues] from a faith perspective,” a message both uncommon yet appealing to legislators, Whitley said.

Whitley pointed to the legislative staff of Rep. Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican who filed House Joint Resolution 55 that would gut local nondiscrimination ordinances. He said they were engaging and interested in constituents’ concerns. When the group pressed on HJR 55, Whitley said the staff insisted the bill was “not what he intended.”

Villalba has stated before the bill is about re-iterating religious freedom protections.

As of press time, Democratic lawmakers have filed 14 bills addressing bullying, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and marriage equality for same-sex couples. Among them is HB 130 by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, one of four bills that would repeal the state’s ban on marriage equality.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Arlington, filed HB 582, which would prevent state contractors from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But Texas’ LGBT community still faces many hurdles in the Legislature. HB 623, filed by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, would strip salary and benefits from any state employee who complies with any future court decision overturning the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. The bill currently has the backing of 40 legislators, all Republicans. Among the local sponsors are Reps. Stephanie Klick and Matt Krause, both of Fort Worth, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Bill Zedler of Arlington, Matt Rinaldi of Irving, and the entire Collin County House delegation.

In the Senate, HB 343 by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, would repeal local nondiscrimination ordinances. Despite that bill, Whitley said, the Faith Advocacy Day delegations found Huffines’ staff receptive as well. As soon as Whitley and his group left the senator’s office, he received a friendly e-mail thanking them for stopping by.

Huffines’ staff should anticipate sending more emails in the days to come. Equality Texas hosts Family Advocacy Day on March 23 and Freedom Advocacy Day on April 13.

More information is available at EqualityTexas.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 20, 2015.