Conservative Texas lawmakers delivered some red meat to their base last week by promising to reintroduce bills that target the LGBTQ community for discrimination when the legislature convenes in Austin in January 2019.
Speaking at the inaugural Faith, Family and Freedom Forum, sponsored by the conservative Christian public advocacy group Texas Values, the lawmakers promised an audience of 200 of the state’s top socially conservative activists that they would push several culture war bills in the upcoming session, reports the Austin American-Statesman.
They are particularly excited about a bill that would allow people and businesses to refuse to serve LGBTQ people based on their personal religious or moral convictions, and another that would bar transgender people from using public restrooms or other facilities that match their gender identity.
State Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth) said the time is ripe to push legislation allowing “right of refusal”-type bills for people who object to recognizing same-sex marriages because of their personal religious beliefs.
Particularly with the expected confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the nation’s next Supreme Court Justice, conservative lawmakers throughout the country are eager to challenge existing pro-LGBTQ laws or pass their own religious exemption laws, with the eventual hope of getting the Supreme Court to rule in favor of social conservatives.
“We should be able to get something signed, and because of the favorable climate in the judiciary, I think it will be upheld as well,” Krause said.
He also said that the retirement of House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican who served as the last holdout preventing passage of the bathroom bill and several other conservative legislative priorities this past session. In June, the Texas Republican Convention approved a platform calling for “religious freedom and privacy legislation,” a reference to bathroom bills.
Even though several House candidates backed by Straus were successful in March Republican primaries, it’s still unclear whether they, working in conjunction with the Democratic caucus, could choose a House Speaker that will block controversial legislation just as Straus did. Additionally, because the Republican Party bylaws still allow the party to censure any public official who takes three or more actions over a 2-year period that are in opposition to the party’s platform, it’s unclear whether those “moderate” Republicans will be willing to oppose the agenda being pushed by their more socially extreme colleagues.
Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) told attendees that she expects to focus on ensuring that public schools do not adopt policies allowing transgender children to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. She noted that several school districts have already adopted policies requiring transgender students to use bathrooms matching their biological sex, or, if they decline, a separate unisex bathroom.
“I really believed in my heart that this was an issue that we needed to look at as a state and not settled school district by school district, not town by town,” Kolkhorst said, calling the bathroom bill the “women’s rights issue of our time” and framing it as an issue of bodily privacy.
Chuck Smith, the CEO of Equality Texas, told Metro Weekly in an interview that it was clear that Kolkhorst, Krause, and other lawmakers who made such pledges were doing so to “fire up a base” of supporters ahead of this year’s elections.
“Sen. Kolkhorst clearly hasn’t recognized that the Texas business community and law enforcement community and victims’ rights groups, and a whole host of people, have told her her bill was discriminatory and unnccessary, but it hasn’t seemed to have any impact on her,” Smith said, adding that it’s still unclear whether such legislation will be able to move forward.
“I fully expect there will be additional bathroom legislation. My sense is that it will look different from 2017, in that it will most likely focus on schools, because these types of lawmakers have shown that there’s nothing holding them back, and it doesn’t bother them to make little kids pawns in their political agendas,” Smith said.
He added that he expects an “avalanche” of religious refusal bills — even greater than the 17 religious exemption bills that the legislature considered but failed to pass last year.
“I fully expect more than 17 religious refusal bills this year,” he said. “And they pose a very real threat. That’s why much of our work this year has focused on educating people about what religious is, how it’s already protected under Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed in 1999, and clarifying that religious freedom and civil rights are not mutually exclusive,” Smith said. “Most of these attempts are not about religious freedom at all, but about finding a way to hide behind religion as an excuse to discriminate.”
A spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign also weighed in on the proposed bills.
“It’s disappointing that some legislators in Texas want to spend another session attempting to legislate hate, after similar anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ legislation failed to pass in 2017,” Nick Morrow, HRC’s southern states press secretary, said in a statement. “But if anti-equality politicians do introduce these bills — yet again — we know that Texans will stand up to these dangerous proposals and defeat them, yet again.”