Time is almost up for state representatives and senators looking to make their mark during the 84th Texas Legislature. Regular session ends May 31.
For a bill to be considered in the House, Saturday, May 9 is the deadline for bills to receive a simple committee hearing. Unless the rules are suspended, those bills that haven’t been heard in committee are dead. The next deadline is May 12, when the calendars committee must schedule floor votes.
Finally, May 14 is the last day to consider votes on bills on the House floor.
May 17 is the deadline for Senate bills to be placed on the calendar, otherwise they, too, are dead.
A handful of both pro- and anti-LGBT bills will likely receive floor votes before the session’s end.
Despite the time crunch, legislators have still found creative ways to push for their legislation like Sen. Craig Estes’ SB 2065. Estes’ companion to Rep. Scott Sanford’s HB 3567 reinforces a clergy member’s right to refuse to conduct a marriage ceremony based on religious conviction.
In essence, the companion bills would allow clergy to decline officiating at a same-sex wedding.
While the filing was timely — in advance of an expected positive ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June on same-sex marriage — Estes’ parliamentary trick was unexpected. Estes filed the bill on April 28, weeks after the filing deadline had passed, at Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s insistence. Estes got his colleagues to vote to suspend Senate rules so he could introduce the late bill — a tactic not common but not unheard of, either.
Gov. Greg Abbott has said he supports the bill. But its vague language worries groups like Equality Texas, the ACLU and Texas Freedom Network, which is why they pushed the addition of four words to both bills: “acting in that capacity.”
The law has to treat everyone equally, Equality Texas’ Daniel Williams said. “But the bill is not clear whether or not clergy who, for example, worked at [the Department of Public Safety] could possibly invoke that statute to reject issuing a driver’s licenses to a same-sex couple. We’re not even saying under terms of employment as a religious leader but acting as a government employee.”
During a contentious Senate hearing, Estes said he was unwilling to add the four key words, a move that surprised Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network. Republican Committee Chair, Sen. Joan Huffman, Quinn said, supported the additional language. But she was also absent due to overlapping committee meetings.
Other religious liberty bills have raised eyebrows as well. HB 3864, also by Rep. Sanford, would allow child welfare organizations to deny care to children of LGBT parents based on religious beliefs. It passed out of committee and is waiting its calendar appointment. Its Senate companion, SB 1935 by Sen. Campbell, has yet to be heard in the Health and Human Services committee.
But not all the news is bad in Austin.
Two pro-LGBT House bills currently await a floor vote.
HB 71 by Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, which would prevent two minors in a same-sex relationship from being charged with child indecency, was voted out of the Criminal Justice and Jurisprudence Committee and is now waiting for a floor date in Calendars.
HB 537 by Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, which would equalize access to accurate supplementary birth certificates for Texas children, passed out of the State Affairs committee on Monday, May 4 with the support of two Republicans, including Chair Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring.
A poll released Wednesday, May 6 showed signs of waning support for anti-LGBT legislation in Texas, with a majority of those polled expressing concern over anti-LGBT discrimination.
“These poll results should serve as a wake up call for those who think promoting discrimination is a good political strategy in Texas,” Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said. “Passing these bills wouldn’t just damage our state’s national reputation and bring to Texas the same condemnation from business and the rest of the country that we saw with similar legislation in Indiana. We also know now that these bills contradict the values of a large majority of Texas voters, who think discrimination against people because of who they are and whom they love is just plain wrong.”
The question remains, however, if the legislators have the political will to listen to those voters.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 8, 2015.