Politics & Government

Restroom battle may head to the Texas Legislature

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talks about school restroom policy

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talks about his conflict the the Fort Worth ISD over bathroom policy for transgender students.
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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick talks about his conflict the the Fort Worth ISD over bathroom policy for transgender students.

A battle over restrooms is building in the Texas Capitol next year.

But what state lawmakers will ultimately do — after months of controversy about transgender Texans and which restrooms they use that included a fierce battle in Fort Worth — is anyone’s guess.

Already, though, it’s clear that the restroom issue “is going to take on a life of its own,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

“It could intensify or slow down,” he said. “It may not be as strict as the North Carolina law. But there are a lot of things that need to be considered and discussed.”

The question of who can go into which public restroom became national news after North Carolina officials passed a law requiring transgender people to use restrooms that correspond with the sex indicated on their birth certificate.

It became even bigger after performers canceled concerts, businesses scrapped expansion plans and sporting events were moved out of the Tar Heel State, all because of the restroom law, House Bill 2.

The issue has also dominated conversations in a handful of Texas cities, including Fort Worth, where Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — who has said the restroom battle should be a legislative priority next year — called for Fort Worth School Superintendent Kent Scribner’s resignation over restroom guidelines.

Those guidelines have been rewritten, and the issue has moved to the back burner.

Supporters and opponents crowded into a Fort Worth school board meeting to voice concerns about a district policy on accommodation for transgender students. (Star-Telegram/Joyce Marshall)

But it’s obvious that the topic will heat up again in the 85th Legislative Session, which begins in January.

“The conservative core of the Republican Party isn’t budging on social issues, even after legal and legislative setbacks,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“It is difficult to get this kind of fevered legislation passed, especially in just one session, but the session will eat up significant time debating it because Republican Party leaders need to demonstrate they are passionate about the issue for the conservative base.”

That’s not what Texas Democrats want to hear.

“It’s a terrible idea. It’s completely unnecessary and it’s intentionally divisive,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “We’ve got far more important things to worry about.”

Restrictions

State lawmakers say they aren’t sure how many restroom bills might be filed or what they might do.

But state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano, plans to propose one.

I think this is such a silly topic. At the end of the day, this is about common sense and decency.

State Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano

He plans to file a bill preventing any local governmental entity in Texas — cities, counties, school districts — from passing restroom policies.

“We’re taking that ability away,” Shaheen said. “We should leave that power where it should reside, at the state and federal level.

“I think this is such a silly topic. At the end of the day, this is about common sense and decency.”

Turner said the Legislature should avoid the issue.

“This is something the state shouldn’t be involved in,” he said. “It’s Austin big government that we are seeing more and more of from the Republican Party in Texas right now that voters don’t want.

“People trust their local officials at the local level to make local decisions. They have put legislators in charge of making statewide decisions,” he said. “We have tremendous state issues before us … and we need to focus on what our job is.”

Shaheen said it’s time for change, pointing to the Fort Worth school district, which drew massive media attention this year after setting guidelines for restroom use by transgender students.

Critics and supporters of the Fort Worth school district’s transgender guidelines spoke up during Tuesday’s trustees meeting.

Initial guidelines sparked outrage from parents who weren’t included in the process and state officials who said it was an overreach. The district announced revised guidelines in July.

“FWISD has well over 20 schools performing below state standards,” Shaheen said. “And they’ve been totally distracted by the silly policy the superintendent took on.

“They should be focused on raising the standards of schools performing below state standards.”

Multiple proposals

Patrick has been very outspoken on this issue, saying he will support a bill for single-sex restrooms — and the issue should be a priority for the 2017 Legislature.

I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Stay out of the ladies’ room if you’re a man.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

“I think the handwriting is on the bathroom wall: Stay out of the ladies’ room if you’re a man,” Patrick, whose office didn’t respond to requests for information this week, told the media this year. “This isn’t about equal rights. This isn’t about being against anyone or anti-any person.

“This is about common sense, common decency and allowing women to have comfort when they’re in the bathroom.”

State Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, said he thinks several restroom bills will be filed. At a minimum, he thinks one will address schools and likely a separate proposal will focus on municipalities.

The issue in general, he said, “raises concerns mainly because anytime you want to make it where someone who self-identifies as a man … can now go into the woman’s restroom, I believe it puts small children at risk as well as … inconveniencing 99, 98 percent of the population so a very small percent of the population can supposedly feel comfortable.”

Economic impact?

Some worry about the economic impact any restroom bill in Texas could have in Texas, particularly since watching the fallout from North Carolina’s law.

Since the law took effect, the NBA moved its All Star Game out of the state; the NCAA announced plans to determine whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are safe from discrimination in any possible championship host city; performers such as Bruce Springsteen canceled concerts; and businesses such as PayPal scrapped expansion plans there.

That adds up to a loss of millions of dollars in economic impact and the loss of thousands of jobs.

“As we say here, everything is bigger in Texas — and that especially goes for our economy,” said Jessica Shortall, managing director for Texas Competes, a pro-LGBT business group launched last year.

“I can’t predict what [the NBA, NCAA] and other sports organizations will do, but they’ve made their positions very clear: They value inclusion for all fans, employees and athletes, and they’re prepared to make venue decisions based on these values.”

One of the biggest local attractions is AT&T Stadium in Arlington, home to the Dallas Cowboys, which has hosted events including the Super Bowl and Academy of Country Music Awards shows.

We’ve never seen discrimination people are talking about — or those fears — come to realization.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, whose district includes the stadium, said he believes there won’t be an economic impact from measures the Legislature approves next year.

“Here in Texas, we’ve hosted so many events and AT&T Stadium is really one of the premier events,” Krause said. “But we’ve never seen discrimination people are talking about — or those fears — come to realization.

“There’s a long proven track record in Texas of hosting major events that have gone very well … and that has been a home run for everyone involved.”

But Turner said a Texas version of the North Carolina bill could hurt the state.

“It would be a catastrophe for Texas and specifically for North Texas and Arlington,” he said. “We have seen that when politicians pass these types of discriminatory and divisive laws, businesses react by pulling out of those states.

We don’t need to do anything in Texas that would deter major events from being held here or businesses feeling they can do business here.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie

“We don’t need to do anything in Texas that would deter major events from being held here or businesses feeling they can do business here.”

Shaheen, who has received calls and emails from people who support his planned restroom bill, said he doesn’t believe it will bring any negative economic impact to Texas.

“We are the 12th-largest economy in the world,” he said. “If a company like Target [which has drawn fire for its restroom policy] wants to leave, I’ll help them pack and leave.

“But the Texas economy is going to do fine.”

Religious freedom

Krause himself isn’t looking at a restroom bill, but he is considering filing a religious freedom measure similar to one that failed last year.

Last year’s proposal, a constitutional amendment that voters would have had to weigh in on, would have prevented a homeowners association or government entity from impacting a person’s “free exercise of religion.”

The proposal — and similar plans — didn’t make it far because of opposition from business interests, such as the Texas Association of Business, that said such measures would hurt the state’s economic development and tourism industry.

“I’m still looking at the landscape of what’s out there right now,” Krause said. “We haven’t settled on anything yet.

“I know there’s a lot of us concerned about protecting religious liberties, but the specific avenue we are going to pursue hasn’t been determined yet.”

Dueling issues?

As for the North Carolina law, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory — who is up for re-election this year — defends it.

“There’s an expectation of privacy for the other girls or other boys in their junior high locker rooms or shower facilities, that the only other people coming in there are people of the same gender, or built as the same gender,” he said.

“We need to work through these problems and not throw hand grenades at this issue because it’s a new, sensitive issue on all sides.”

If a measure similar to the one in North Carolina should pass in Texas, businesses and entertainers alike have shown they are willing to avoid areas that discriminate against the LGBT community.

“Texas would certainly lose some business opportunities if such legislation were to pass; how much depends on the nature of the final legislation and how many other states are engaging in similar politics,” Rottinghaus said.

It would be ironic if the state Republicans’ top issues — economic and social issues — went head to head.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston

And that would go against the business-friendly message Republican leaders have long preached.

“It would be ironic if the state Republicans’ top issues — economic and social issues — went head to head,” Rottinghaus said.

Patrick has repeatedly drawn attention to the restroom issue, whether before a Fort Worth school board meeting or at the Republican State Convention in Dallas.

“If it costs me an election, if it costs me a lot of grief, then so be it,” he has told the media. “If we can’t fight for something this basic, then we’ve lost our country.”

Anna M. Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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