Forget about the monument to the Ten Commandments right outside the Texas Capitol grounds.
Disregard the fact that this past Christmas, Gov. Greg Abbott tossed out a benign, nerdy “nativity” scene celebrating the U.S. Constitution in the statehouse basement because an atheist group put it there. Never mind that Abbott publicly supports cops who want to put Christian cross decals on their public police department cruisers, or that the social studies curriculum guiding Texas public schools has received national media attention for how closely it toes the conservative Christian line.
If you believe the group of clergy, religious organizations and right-wing “family values” conservatives who testified before Texas lawmakers Wednesday, Texas is fast becoming a very scary place for conservative Christians.
It’s a fear firmly rooted in society’s growing acceptance of the LGBT community. Jonathan Saenz with Texas Values, who told the Senate State Affairs Committee that “attacks on religious freedom, even in Texas, are at a level that we’ve never seen," said that in light of recent movement on LGBT rights, Christians feel “the ground shifting below our feet.”
Shift it has. It's not just last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, including in states like Texas that had expressly banned it. Saenz and others say the push for local non-discrimination ordinances shielding the LGBT community (and many others) from housing and job discrimination infringes on Christians’ religious right to, well, discriminate against the LGBT community.
Officially, the Senate committee met at the behest of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to figure out some “religious liberty protections” the legislature might consider passing next session. Patrick’s charge was part of the collective freak-out by elected officials at the top of Texas state government following the gay marriage-legalizing SCOTUS ruling. Among his other legal problems, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton now faces an investigation by the State Bar of Texas to determine whether he violated the rules of professional conduct when, following the ruling, he told Texas county clerks that they could turn away same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses.
Last October, Paxton sent the lieutenant governor a wish list of changes he thought the legislature should consider next session in order to “protect religious liberties.” It included everything from legislation blocking local non-discrimination ordinances to protecting the “religious liberty and freedom” of adoption and foster care agencies that refuse to place kids with loving gay couples.
And if those proposals sound familiar, it’s because they were up before the legislature last year as lawmakers considered a record number of anti-LGBT bills. Testimony before the Senate committee Wednesday by Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, probably best explains why all of those bills died.
Hammond told committee members that both big businesses and young talent are increasingly reluctant to move to states where you can discriminate against people just because of who they are. Laws making it easier to deny LGBT people business, jobs or housing can have “a chilling effect" on economic development in the state, Hammond warned.
In fact, Steve Rudner, a Dallas attorney and board member with Equality Texas, pointed to a growing number of companies based in Texas that have signed a pledge supporting LGBT equality and inclusion under a coalition called Texas Competes. So far, some 600 companies have signed the pledge that “in order for Texas businesses to compete for top talent, we must have workplaces and communities that are diverse and welcoming for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”
“These are not radical left-wing agenda people,” Rudner told the committee. “This is JPMorgan Chase, this is Allstate, Dow Chemical, Tenet Healthcare, Dell, Google.” The list goes on.
But here’s one way to get Republicans to ignore big business interests: tell them it clashes with “protecting religious liberties.”
State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, feigned genuine surprise that knocking down local LGBT protections or empowering groups to turn away gay couples who want to adopt could be construed by anyone as “discrimination.” In a defensive tone, Huffman said: “The word 'discrimination' does not show up anywhere in this charge, and I don’t believe there's anyone in this legislature or this committee who wants to legislate discrimination.”
See, even though Texans can still be fired or denied housing just for being lesbian, gay, bi or trans, it’s people like Molly Criner who really need help from the state. A Texas county clerk, Criner says she can’t in good conscience grant a same-sex marriage license, saying it would go against her religious belief that marriage should only be of the Adam-and-Eve variety, not to mention the Texas Constitution (apparently she's never heard of the Supremacy Clause). Luckily, Criner hasn’t yet been forced into becoming a martyr for the cause; apparently there are no gay couples in Irion County itching to tie the knot.
John Tyler, a law professor at Houston Baptist University, spoke of religious persecution in the form of a federal mandate that large employers include birth control coverage in their health plans – or that they notify the feds if they refuse to cover it for religious reasons so that the government can swoop in and make up for that coverage. While it’s unclear what HBU’s legal spat with the feds (over birth control that the college wrongly likens to abortion) has to do with state law, Tyler also warned the committee that legalizing same-sex marriage wasn’t really about marriage at all, but rather part of a strategic attack on religious freedom. Here’s how he explained it:
“I just suggest to you that this institution of marriage was not attacked at random. It’s all part of the planned agenda to limit freedom of religion by those who are opposed to…well, for whatever their political reasons are.”
Sen. Craig Estes, a Republican from Wichita Falls, replied: “Sounds absolutely diabolical. Is there a conspiracy here, you think?” It’s unclear if he was joking.
While many who testified before the Senate committee Wednesday insisted that LGBT rights and protections are just an excuse to erode religious freedoms in the state, Rudner sees it differently. He pointed to his son, who’s both gay and Jewish, observant enough to wear a yarmulke wherever he goes.
“Whenever he’s going through the state of Texas, I’ve never had any fear or any concern of him being victimized because he’s Jewish and obviously so,” Rudner told the committee. “But I’ll tell you, I lose sleep every time that he goes out into Dallas’s Oak Lawn neighborhood, where people are still being beaten up just because they’re gay.”
Sen. Estes pointed to a Houston photographer who testified that he no longer advertises for wedding jobs because he’s afraid turning down a gay couple could get him into legal trouble (since the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance failed at the polls last year, there’s now little risk of that).
“You think this photographer fella here ought to be able to pick and choose who he does business with?” Estes asked Rudner. When Rudner told Estes he thought that businesses that aim to serve the public should serve all the public, Estes asked where Rudner works.
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Since Rudner works at a law firm, this is the comparison we got from Estes: “Would you take a Nazi skinhead as a client who’s accused of murdering a Jewish person?”
Presumably, Estes thought he was making a point. The murdering skinhead and the attorney. The gay couple and the Bible-thumping wedding photographer.
While the two scenarios might sound similar in the senator's brain, there’s one pretty important difference: The skinhead killed someone because of who that person was.
That gay couple just wants some fabulous wedding-day glamour shots.