Senate panel OKs ‘Romeo and Juliet’ measure that would provide legal protections for gay teens; Republican John Carona votes yes
The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice voted 4-1 to advance SB 1316 — a so-called “Romeo and Juliet” bill that would provide legal protections for sexually active gay and lesbian teens.
Three Democrats and one Republican, Sen. John Carona of Dallas, voted in favor of the bill.
The bill is the first pro-LGBT bill to make it favorably out of committee since 2001, when the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which includes protections based on “sexual preference,” passed out of committee and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.
Daniel Williams, field organizer for Equality Texas, said he wasn’t surprised Carona voted for the bill to get it out of committee because he is an “extremely reasonable person who listens to mainstream views of his party.” He said the overall mainstream values in Texas are to let people live without inference from the government.
“I think it’s indicative of the attitude of the Texas Legislature and the will of the people,” he said. “It is historic.”
Carona, who came out in support of LGBT rights during an interview with Dallas Voice in the fall before going silent on the issues, told Dallas Voice in an email that he backed the bill because, “I have consistently supported Romeo and Juliet laws tailored to ensure that young people are not the victims of unintended consequences.”
Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said three moms, a dad, two social workers and a representative from the Harris County District Attorney’s office testified in favor of the bill.
“The parents made very effective witnesses,” Smith said. “They spoke to the issue that needs to be addressed between parents and kids.”
Only anti-gay group Texas Values sent in a written note opposing the bill. President Jonathan Saenz told Dallas Voice he thought it “is a symbolic way to support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender community.”
“I seriously doubt that any Senate Republican other than Sen. Carona will support this bill,” he said.
Despite clearing the Senate committee, the measure still faces long odds. It would need a two-thirds majority vote from the full Senate before it can be considered on the floor.
The House version of the bill, HB 2403, was also heard this week by Criminal Jurisprudence committee, but Smith said there was not a quorum for a vote and Equality Texas needs to work to secure votes from the committee in the next few weeks.
Pansexual state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, is the House version’s author. She said getting her bill out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee would be a “tough fight” during a panel last weekend at the Equality Forward Summit. But she added that instead of pro-equality lawmakers being on the defensive for anti-gay bills, it’s time to educate lawmakers on issues that affect LGBT Texans.
“While we are now moving from being on the defensive to educating people, we continue to encourage the leadership to support these bills,” Gonzalez said.
Anti-gay HB 1568, authored Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, also received a hearing this week, but the bill was left pending in the Public Education Committee. The bill would cut state funding for school districts that offer domestic partner benefits. Since the bill’s filing, the Austin Independent School District joined Pflugerville ISD in deciding to offer DP benefits.
Smith said proponents of the bill had disgruntled complaints against Pflugerville for deciding to add DP benefts.
“This is a local control issue that if someone is upset about what Pflugerville did, it should be dealt with in Pflugerville,” Smith said. “I’m hopeful that it will be left pending.”
Former state Rep. Warren Chisum and Saenz also testified in person on the bill’s behalf.
“I certainly expect HB 1568 to pass out of the Public Education committee chaired by Republican Jimmie Don Aycock and be eventually signed into law,” Saenz said. “I would think their constituents would be shocked if any Republican opposed HB 1568.”
Smith said bills need to get out of committee and hearings for other bills need to happen within the next two weeks in order for the bills to pass through one chamber by the end of April. That leaves time for them to make it through the other chamber by the end of the session on May 27.
Of the 28 pro-equality pieces of legislation that have been filed, Smith said two have a strong chance of passing this session.
HB 2240 by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, has passed out of committee and would study the number of and solutions to youth homelessness, of which a high percentage are LGBT.
SB 831 by Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood, which passed the Senate this week, would help establish mental health, suicide prevention and substance abuse programs for public schools.
Other bills seem less likely to pass, but Equality Texas wants to at least get them out of committee.
SB 237, filed by state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, had a hearing last week but was left pending in committee. The bill is the first Senate version of the anti-LGBT workplace nondiscrimination bill and is the companion to San Antonio Democrat Mike Villarreal’s HB 238, which has not been scheduled for a hearing yet.
Equality Texas is still trying to get a hearing for HB 201, authored by Dallas Democrat Rafael Anchia, to allow same-sex couples to sign an adopted child’s supplementary birth certificate.
Smith said the bill had a hearing in the Public Health Committee the last two sessions, but this year it was referred to the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee so advocates are working with a new committee for consideration.
Smith said people personally affected by legislation and constituents of people on committees hearing pro-equality legislation should contact their representatives to secure hearings and passage out of committee.
“There is a sense of urgency,” he said. “At each step of the process, different people have the power.”
To find who represents you, visit www.fyi.legis.state.tx.us. To follow the pro-equality legislation, go to TinyURL.com/EQTX13.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 12, 2013.