As more Texas cities pass local anti-discrimination ordinances, Republican lawmakers in the Lege have been pushing back with proposed legislation that would nullify existing ordinances and prevent more cities from passing them in the future.
Some of these proposed measures, like the ones introduced by Senator Donna Campbell, of San Antonio,and representative Jason Villalba, of Dallas, focus on the free exercise and expression of religion. Others, like the one filed by Senator Don Huffines, of Dallas, push the idea that city governments shouldn’t be able to create rules that are “more stringent” than state law. And another still, filed by representative Rick Miller, of Sugar Land, maintains that differing local discrimination ordinances in Texas are damaging to intrastate commerce.
Miller’s bill, HB 1556, introduced on February 18, was sitting quietly untouched on February 25 when a remarkably similar law passed in Arkansas. HB 1556 and the Arkansas bill are both dubbed the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act and contain almost the exact same wording. Tucked away in Miller’s legislation is a sentence that has popped up recently in several other bills filed in other states:
A county, municipality, or other political subdivision may not adopt or enforce a local law that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in the laws of this state.
A variation of this sentence appeared for the first time about four years ago, in a bill introduced in Tennessee in 2011. The Tennessee legislation, HB 600, was also labeled as an “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Law,” and it was the first bill of its kind to become law in the United States.
Tennessee’s bill passed almost twenty years after Colorado approved an amendment to its state constitution that sought to prohibit cities in the state from adopting policies that protect anyone with “homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual orientation” from discrimination. The law was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1996 case Romer v. Evans, ruling that the Colorado initiative didn’t satisfy the federal Equal Protection Clause and unfairly targeted one group of citizens without any “rational basis.” So instead of specifically targeting any one group of people, the Tennessee law barred local governments from expanding the definition of discrimination beyond what was delineated in state law. Like Texas, Tennessee and Arkansas have never had a statewide non-discrimination policy that includes LGBT protections.
Since the Tennessee bill became law, similar legislation has died in the Michigan, Oklahoma, and Mississippi legislatures. And just a few days ago, another intrastate commerce improvement bill was postponed indefinitely in the West Virginia legislature, after more than forty people spoke out against it during a public hearing.
It is worth noting that Miller’s bill, as currently written, would be toothless if Texas Democrats are successful in their biennial bid to expand the definition of discrimination on the state level in order to ban actions based on sexual orientation or gender identity. (One of those bills, SB 856, was filed on Texas Independence Day by Senator Jose Rodriguez, of El Paso.)
Miller’s bill also comes with some added controversy. As reported by the Texas Observer, the representative’s son, Beau Miller, is an openly gay attorney and an LGBT activist in Houston. Beau publicly responded to his father’s bill, which would reverse the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance that legally protects people like Beau from discrimination, in a statement posted March 5 on his Facebook page.
As many of you know by now, my dad has authored and submitted a bill in the Texas House of Representatives that, if signed into law, would prevent municipalities in Texas from maintaining sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. While I love my dad very much, I am extremely disappointed by his actions and will do everything I can to prevent that bill, or any such legislation, from becoming law. … I have been in fairly intense talks with my dad and his office about this issue. Although I am hopeful that I can persuade him to agree to not pursue this bill’s advancement, that outcome is far from certain.
(Photograph by Billie Ward.)