Religious liberty concerns raised after only one bill makes it to Texas House, Senate floors

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AUSTIN—Religious liberty advocates had high hopes going into the 84th Texas Legislative session for passage of bills protecting pastors, businesses, individuals and the state’s marriage laws. But at the session’s final gavel June 1 only one bill had passed muster while other religious liberty legislation never made it out of committees.

Passage of Senate Bill 2065, the Pastor Protection bill, gives clergy some legal protection against litigation should they refuse to preside over a same sex marriage. But critics claim the bill was passed as a token to pastors and their allies while other legislation that would have provided similar protection for other Texans and shore up the existing marriage law were left to die in committees or the bottom of a calendar without a public debate.

“It is clear that LGBT activists and corporate business pressure are to blame for the death of our religious liberty bills,” said Cindy Asmussen, SBTC ethics and religious liberty advisor. “The Pastor Protection bill was supported only after pastors from around the state faithfully came on four separate occasions to the Capitol to rally their support for this bill.”

The bill ensures clergy and churches cannot be compelled by the government to solemnize or facilitate a wedding that is in conflict with their deeply held religious convictions. The law also provides legal standing for them if sued for refusing to perform a wedding.

The pastors’ testimonies held little sway over lawmakers as their voices competed with those of LGBT proponents and their advocates in the Texas Association of Businesses (TAB). Adding to bills’ demise were hyperbolic protests in Indiana following passage of that states’ Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) in April. Pastors and their allies fear lawmakers have left Texans with little defense for advocating a view of traditional marriage if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that states must recognize same-sex marriage.

“I definitely think what happened in Indiana and Arkansas tainted the issues that we were pushing in Texas,” said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Ft. Worth, told the TEXAN. “Regardless, I think it’s unfortunate that Texas did not take the opportunity to debate the issue more thoroughly. If we had done so, I think Texas could have been a leader and at the forefront of the discussion instead of a bystander.”

Krause, who hails from a family of Southern Baptist pastors, sponsored legislation that would have established a Texas RFRA amendment. Texas has a RFRA statute that can be repealed by the legislature. Amendments must be voted into and out of the Texas Constitution by the voters. Krause’s bill never made it out of committee.

Dave Welch, president of the Texas Pastors Council, and Jonathan Saenz, an attorney and president of conservative Texas Values and its political action wing Texas Values Action, did not hesitate to blame Republican leadership and TAB’s partnership with pro-LGBT organizations like Texas Impact and Texas Freedom Network for the demise of significant legislation.

Welch said the Pastor Protection bill passed only after repeated lobbying by pastors urging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to step up pressure on committee chair Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, to move the bill out of committee. Only then did the bill get a hearing and ultimately a vote in the legislature.

“Senator [Huffman] could have given this a hearing any time up until the deadline but rather pushed through a useless bill protecting pastors’ sermons from being subpoenaed. … I studied her bill and found it completely unnecessary. It was a token attempt to placate us,” said Welch.

The unanimous vote for the Pastor Protection bill vindicated its supporters’ assertion that the measure was common sense law and that similar measures would have had the same result had they been given a hearing.

Regarding bills addressing the state’s sovereignty over marriage law and protections for faith-based child welfare providers, Saenz said, “Had these bills been scheduled for votes by the leadership of the Texas House in a timely manner, we are certain they would have passed despite overwhelming opposition from Democrats and LGBT advocacy groups.”

House Bill 4105 by Rep. Cecil Bell, Jr., R-Magnolia, was an attempt to maintain state sovereignty over marriage law should the Supreme Court rule in favor of same-sex marriage. Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney offered, HB 3864 that would have protected the rights of conscience for faith-based adoption and foster agencies if they refused service to same-sex couples. Both bills were offered, unsuccessfully, as amendments in the waning days of the session.

 Although pleased with the passage of SB 2065, Asmussen said the lone bill does not provide legal cover for the multitude of scenarios legislators were trying to account for. The state’s RFRA statute gives a broad foundation upon which Texans can stand when defending their religious convictions, but it does not provide the specific defense needed for a variety of situations, Asmussen and others argued. A statute, unlike an amendment, can be repealed by any subsequent legislature.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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