If you’ve been following the Eighty-fourth Legislature’s actions, you’ve probably noticed that there’s been a lively debate about LGBT rights in Texas. So lively, in fact, that Equality Texas legal specialist Daniel Williams described it to the Texas Observer as the worst session for the LGBT community since 2005, the year Texas passed its existing same-sex marriage ban in the first place.
The issue has been on the national consciousness, what with the U.S. Supreme Court recently hearing oral arguments about state bans on same-sex marriages and a decision expected on the case this June. While experts agree the justices will likely rule the bans unconstitutional, legal fights surrounding LGBT rights have been ongoing in Texas. And from a legislative perspective, the tally of anti-LGBT bills filed in the state this session has surpassed twenty. Even if next to none of these bills will see the light of day for all kinds of reasons—including the LGBT community’s alliance with the business community and the simple fact that some of these proposals are unconstitutional—the fact that it continues to be a contentious point in state politics lays bare the high tensions in Texas surrounding the issue.
Of those twenty bills filed, some have been controversial; others, not so much. One discussed Monday would protect clergymen (really anyone employed by a religious institution in the state) from having to perform same-sex marriages if it went against their “sincerely held beliefs,” and though pastors from across the state came to voice their long-winded opinions on the issue, the ultimate question of, who is going to make them perform same-sex marriages against their will, was never really asked. Of course, in the wake of potential legalization of same-sex marriage across the America, there does seem to be a growing concern that religious officials could be punished or harassed by LGBT activists without protections like these, and there was little opposition to the bill save for civil rights leaders arguing these protections are already afforded to religious leaders under the Constitution. Even so, advocates on both sides of the issue specified they could support the bill: Equality Texas, a prominent LGBT advocacy group in the state, agreed it could back the bill so long as it was changed to specify clergy “acting in official capacity.” It seems that everyone can agree that religious officials should, you know, have religious freedom.
However, a different law—the the Texas Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act (affectionately abbreviated by the Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson as “POSAMA”), or HB 4105—has received negative national attention after being approved by the State Affairs Committee. This bill would skirt the strike-down on same sex marriage bans by barring state officials from spending money toward the licensing of same-sex marriages in the state. Introduced by state representative Cecil Bell, Jr. of suburban Houston, there are several strong arguments that it’s unconstitutional. But its advancement through the legislative process is a strong signal that many in the state are still vehemently opposed to the hallmark decision SCOTUS could pass down.
Other controversial proposals include House Bill 1556 (which would strike down nondiscrimination ordinances like the one that provoked so much ire in Houston last year) and amending Texas’s fifteen-year-old Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which unlike Indiana’s current religious freedom law, was a bipartisan effort with the blessing of civil rights groups as a proper balance of religious freedom with non-discrimination protections. Texas lawmakers are trying to “enhance” this law, or broaden the definition of “burden” on religious liberty in the state, which many argue opens the door for discrimination against LGBT patrons. But they’re meeting a pretty strong and vocal contingent that wants to keep the RFRA the way it is and keep an LGBT-friendly atmosphere in the Lone Star State: big business. Dell, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods, and a numer of other companies based here are arguably attracted to our state’s business-friendly attitude. In a recent initiative called Texas Competes, these companies and many more have made clear their view that if Texas is to continue to compete economically with the rest of the nation, the state can’t discriminate against the LGBT community.
This has sparked an unlikely alliance between the Texas Association of Business, which has traditionally associated with more conservative groups, and LGBT leaders across the state. TAB’s chief executive officer, Bill Hammond, has publicly opposed legislation that would undercut nondiscrimination policies, arguing that it would compromise Texas’s ability to attract big business. And there’s evidence that other Republicans in the statehouse support this same stance, which leads many to believe that what will happen in Texas is similar to what occurred in Oklahoma’s own legislative session where 15 of 16 anti-LGBT bills just flat-out died: run the clock so these bills never see the light of day.
And then you have your grass-roots Republicans like Cecil Bell, Jr., who are vocal about their idea of traditional marriage, and how the institution is being threatened by giving couples of the same-sex the option of legal status comparable to their opposite-sex counterparts. It’s looking like that last group is getting desperate, as evidenced by the all the attempts to stifle gay rights in the state.
And after all of this, a pro-LGBT adoption bill just passed through committee into the House on Monday, and would allow birth certificates to bear the names of both adoptive parents. So it’s not all anti-LGBT in the Capitol.
(AP Images | Tamir Kalifa)