Texas lawmakers and top business leaders vowed Tuesday to kill two proposed constitutional amendments that they say will promote discrimination against gays and could lead to backlash similar to what was seen in Indiana and Arkansas.
Opponents say the proposals, sponsored by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would turn the business-friendly Lone Star State into a costly state for corporations and negatively affect tourism.
Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 allows residents to sue state and local governments if they feel that a government entity is burdening their religious beliefs or practices. Lauded as “carefully crafted” by gay-rights advocates, the act explicitly says it cannot be used to undermine federal or state civil rights and cannot take precedence over local ordinances.
The proposed amendments do not explicitly say the law cannot be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation, mirroring the original language of laws enacted recently in Indiana and Arkansas that sparked boycotts and strong opposition. Those states’ Republican-controlled legislatures revised the laws last week.
Krause said his proposed amendment would give constitutional strength to Texas’ law. It would also trump local laws, including nondiscrimination ordinances in cities such as Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
Dozens of states have similar religious freedom laws, largely modeled after a federal law enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. Texas is one of 29 states that have no protections for gays and lesbians in nondiscrimination laws. Similar debates are going on in other statehouses as Republican governors in Michigan and North Dakota urge lawmakers to extend protections for gays.
Flanked by Democratic lawmakers at a news conference, Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, called the GOP-backed measures “misguided legislation.”
Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, said that, as in Indiana and Arkansas, people in Texas are concerned about the economy. A bipartisan group of legislators “will stop this thing in the House,” he said.
Krause said he’s still confident in his proposal. He said the amendments wouldn’t change the protections already in the act. “Our system’s worked well for 16 years,” he said Tuesday.
But others fear that’s not the case.
Under current law, a governmental entity facing a civil-rights lawsuit cannot use religious liberty as a defense, according to Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“The constitutional amendments would sweep away that language,” Robertson said.
If the amendments clear committees — neither proposal is set for a hearing yet — they would require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature, the governor and, finally, voters.
Kathy Miller, president of the advocacy group Texas Freedom Network, said that the amendments are dangerous but that 18 other bills would open the door for even more discrimination. Some proposals target local nondiscrimination ordinances, and others would prohibit tax dollars from being used to license, register or recognize same-sex marriages.
“They go further than the irresponsible bills that sparked the backlash in Indiana and Arkansas,” she said. “These bills are bad for Texas.”