Bill may hold keys to retaining religious freedom in Texas

AUSTIN—Texas legislators have filed a bill in the current legislative session that could allow Texans to take strides in the fight to retain religious liberty. Versions have been filed in both the House of Representatives and the Senate—HRJ 110 by Rep. Jason Isaac (R-Dripping Springs) and SJR by Sen. Donna Campbell (R-San Antonio) and Sen. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney). If supported in the 83rd legislative session, the bill could be placed on the ballot as a proposed constitutional amendment for Texas voters to consider in November.

Campbell said faith and religious values are foundational and that protecting them is essential to democracy.

“SJR 4 proposes a state constitutional amendment that reaffirms our religious freedom and serves as a firewall against activist judges and overarching mandates which may encroach on the religious beliefs of Texas citizens,” Campbell said. “Whether a municipality decides to start a public meeting with a prayer or a student includes a Scripture on a football banner, these are free expressions of the soul and should not be silenced with the threat of government action.”

Rep. Isaac said although some legislation exists to protect religious liberty, it has become clear that further steps need to be taken to insulate those freedoms from otherwise deteriorating.

“Religious liberty is a founding principle of our country, and it’s crucial that we preserve this freedom for future generations,” Isaac said. “Although Texas enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999, recent litigation has led me to believe that a constitutional amendment is necessary to ensure that our liberties are protected from an overreaching legislature, government bureaucracy or court system. Citizens are guaranteed freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, and there is an important distinction.”

Texas Values, a state-focused effort of Liberty Institute to effect policy in Austin, echoes the bill authors’ sentiments and calls the bill “one of the most important” of the legislative session. Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, recalled specific, recent examples of government encroachment.

“[Examples include] a school student banned from bringing a religious-themed candy cane to a winter party in public school (Plano), valedictorian threatened by judge with incarceration for offering a prayer during her graduation comments (Medina Valley High School), cheerleaders prevented from using a religious message on privately made banners for sports events (Kountze) and pregnancy care centers targeted by the City of Austin and forced to violate their religious beliefs to satisfy a city ordinance,” Saenz said.

The leadership of Texas Values stressed the need for citizens to urge representatives to support the measure in the House and Senate. Campbell said with that vocal support from Texans, the forecast for the bill appears favorable.

“I believe the outlook for the bill’s passage is good so long as citizens remain vocal in their support,” Campbell said. “It’s not controversial; it has the backing of the lieutenant governor, and constitutional scholars like Kelly Shackelford have endorsed it. Sixteen other states have passes similar measures.”

The constitutional amendment would place the “substantive core” of the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that have been enacted federally, into the state constitution.

“The substantive core of the Texas Religious Freedom Amendment, which has been called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA), have been enacted and/or recognized at the federal level and in 31 other states—some in the form of state law, constitutional amendment or by court interpretation,” Saenz said. “Texas currently has state law protection in the form of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 1999, but the attacks on religious freedom in Texas have continued since 1999.”

Saenz said the religious freedom amendment’s passage in the state Legislature would provide an opportunity for Texans to speak out and act to retain their freedoms, which appear in greater danger with each passing day.

“New attacks on religious freedom are becoming more and more frequent, even in Texas,” Saenz said. “Our Texas Constitution does not currently include the level of religious freedom protection necessary to be the lasting firewall we need on such a fundamental issue. HJR 110 and SJR 4 provide that firewall and give Texans the chance to decide this issue at the ballot box in November.”

Those who wish to find information on how to contact their representatives can visit capitol.state.tx.us and fill in the ‘Who Represents Me?’ box on the right side of the page. To follow the progress of the bill, type ‘SJR 4’ or ‘HJR 110’ into the ‘Search Legislation’ field at the top of the same page. Now that the bill has been filed, it will go on to committees in the House and Senate and will be voted on by each. A draft of the bill is also available by clicking the ‘Text’ tab at the top of the web page for either version of the bill.

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