Texas Legislature’s New Caucus Counts Its Small Victories

HOUSTON (CN) — Texas state Rep. Celia Israel has introduced a bill to ban homosexual “conversion therapy” again and again in the Legislature, knowing it will be killed by a Republican majority. Though it died again this session, it was finally heard by a committee, a sign of growing clout of the new LGBTQ caucus.

The Texas House caucus made headlines last week when one of its five founding members, Rep. Julie Johnson, a Dallas attorney, used procedural moves to kill House Bill 3172, a Republican bid to authorize lawsuits against cities if they refuse to do business with companies that oppose same-sex marriage.

Johnson has criticized the legislation as discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

“You know we’re just getting started,” said LGBTQ caucus vice-chair Jessica González, D-Dallas. “That’s one of the reasons that this caucus is so important. We bring our personal experiences to this body. And I think that really forces other legislators to confront the real people that these bills hurt,” González said in an interview.

The caucus’s victory was short-lived, as the Texas Senate revived a companion bill Monday, suspending rules to rush it to a committee, where it was approved for debate before the full Senate.

But Johnson told Courthouse News: “This suspension did not provide the public enough notice that the bill was being considered and essentially left public input out of the debate.”

It’s been dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill because its sponsors say it would bring repercussions to cities such as San Antonio, whose City Council and mayor voted in March to stop the fast-food chain from opening a restaurant in the airport due to anti-LGBTQ statements of its owners. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is mulling a lawsuit against San Antonio.

“The city’s discriminatory decision is not only out of step with Texas values, but inconsistent with the Constitution and Texas law,” Paxton said in a statement in March.

Chick-fil-A, which said it closes its restaurants on Sundays so employees “can rest or worship if they choose,” is staying out of the fray, saying it is not involved in the proposed bills at all.

“We are a restaurant company focused on food and hospitality for all, and we have no social or political stance,” the Atlanta-based company said Tuesday in an email. “We are grateful for all our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. We welcome and embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The LGBTQ caucus is also closely watching Texas Senate Bill 17. It would bar the Department of Licensing and Regulation, which regulates more than 150 professions, from refusing to license or renew the license of applicants who refuse to provide services for homosexuals or transgender people on religious grounds.

Sen. Jose Menéndez, D-San Antonio, asked legislators in a hearing last month to picture a gay couple waiting for a tow truck driver to get their car at 1 a.m. (See p.17 of Texas Senate Journal.)

“What if the tow truck driver sees them and says that his religious beliefs or her religious beliefs prevent them from towing their car? This is just one example of discrimination that I think could happen,” Menéndez said.

Menéndez said a high school reading therapist could cite her religion to decline to help a dyslexic teenage mother who had a child out of wedlock.

Doctors would still have to honor the Hippocratic Oath and provide treatment “necessary to prevent death or imminent serious bodily injury,” according to the Senate Research Center analysis of SB 17.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, said in a hearing that his SB 17 “gives a voice those of faith” who are being silenced by “state-sponsored discrimination.”

“It’s an attack on the very fiber of where we used to be as a country, where we had a moral absolute standard that we seem to have tossed to the wind, as the secular world becomes more and more active in making sure those voices are silenced. These are not my rules that I live by, these are rules that I believe a sovereign creator gave us for the betterment of society,” said Perry, a CPA.

González, the LGBTQ caucus vice-chair, said in an interview she believes such religious exemptions undermine laws meant to protect everyone.

“Imagine what it would be like if we were free to cherry-pick which laws to follow based on our personal religious beliefs. … I think as a country we decided a long time ago [that] when businesses are open to the public they should be open to everyone on the same terms,” she said.

Lawmakers in Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Michigan have passed similar religious exemption laws, and they are making inroads in Washington, D.C., according to Menéndez.

President Donald Trump’s administration finalized new rules on May 2 authorizing healthcare workers to deny medical care if it goes against their religion.

A nurse can refuse to participate in an abortion, for example, or a Christian doctor can decline to perform a sex-change operation.

González said the LGBTQ caucus has spent this session, which ends May 27 unless Gov. Greg Abbott calls lawmakers back to Austin for a special session, sounding the alarms on discriminatory bills and reveling in small victories, such as sending Celia Israel’s bill to ban conversion therapy to a committee hearing.

Discredited by the American Psychiatric Association for treating homosexuality as a mental disorder, the therapy sometimes involves religious groups using exorcism and prayer to try to convert gays and lesbians to heterosexuals.

Israel also introduced the bill in the Legislature’s 2015 and 2017 biennial sessions and in each of those it died quietly without a hearing. She did not respond to emailed questions.

González said: “I think that even if it didn’t get out of committee, the fact that she was able to get a hearing on it I think is very telling of the presence the caucus has here in the House. Overall, I’m proud we began this caucus and I think I’m even more proud to say we’re going to continue here and we’re just getting started.”

The caucus’s founding members include Israel, chairwoman Rep. Mary González, D-El Paso, and Erin Zwiener, a Democrat and three-time “Jeopardy” champion.

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