“Pastor Protection Act” Passes, LGBT Community Refuses to Be Painted as Anti-Religious Freedom

House Democrats today took to the back mic during the third reading of Senate Bill 2065 (a.k.a. the anti-LGBT “Pastor Protection Act”)… to speak for the bill. Equality Texas, too, seemed to support the legislation in its latest form.

Perhaps that’s because nowhere in the text does it refer to “marriage between a man and a woman.” Rather the intent of the bill was more of a dog whistle for social conservatives concerned that a looming Supreme Court ruling may overturn gay marriage bans. Bill sponsor State Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) acknowledged as much in presenting the bill, saying that this “shield” was needed by pointing to examples of pastors claiming to have been harassed or intimidated because they would not perform ceremonies for LGBT couples (including the five Houston-area pastors who were subpoenaed by the City of Houston last fall during the protracted legal fight over the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance).  

The bill might have also been a chance for Republicans in more purple districts to score points on Democrat legislators, as the act apparently seeks to enshrine the freedom of clergy and religious leaders to choose whom they agree to marry—protections that already exist on the federal and state level. But Democrats, safe from a threatened amendment to tack on language from a much more serious anti-gay marriage bill that died in the House last week, for the most part did not take the bait. Instead, they used their time to ask legislative intent questions and proposed an amendment seeking to all but force Republicans to admit their bill had no purpose whatsoever, aside from being a preemptive “fuck you” to the anticipated SCOTUS ruling expected this summer (as well as to the LGBT community at large).

Then, lead by state Representatives Celia Israel (D-Travis County) and Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso)—two out of three out LGBT candidates ever elected to the Texas Legislature—House Democrats announced their support of the bill to show that, in Gonzalez’s words, “there is space for LGBT justice and religious freedom.” State Rep. Rafael Anchia said that by voting yes, “We’re also affirming the fact that gay people get married in our churches every day … all over this state.” And Israel stole the show, quipping, “Let me reassure some pastors here, some fine day my partner and I will be able to get married in the great state of Texas.” But when that day comes, instead of seeking out reluctant religious officiants, Israel said, “[we] will be going to someone who loves and respects who we are and the way we have taken care of each other.”

It’s not all rainbows and harmony for the Pastor Protection Act, however. Some sticking points for LGBT advocates, who generally supported the bill from the beginning when Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick fast-tracked it, were not conceded. For instance, the bill’s original author, State Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), refused to make clear that religious clergy acting in other public capacities, such as those who happen to be employed by the state issuing marriage licenses or performing ceremonies as justices of the peace, would be exempt from this particular shield while carrying out those functions. State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) brought a failed amendment she said was requested by bishops of various Protestant denominations worried that the language would allow individual ministers to supersede church doctrine in regards to whom they must marry. 

Yet the bill may still be seen as a successful compromise between a slowly shrinking group of social conservatives and other legislators who consider LGBT voters and supporters important constituents (including, Houston State Rep. Sarah Davis, the only Texas GOP legislator to publicly back gay marriage). While there’s still a little more than a week left in this session, thus far this largely ceremonial act is the only one of more than 20 proposed anti-LGBT bills to have a successful run. And the bill, which passed the House 141-2 (nays were Democrats Terry Canales and Armando Walle), still needs to clear the Senate for final approval before heading to Governor Abbott’s desk. 
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Callie Enlow