One bill, sponsored by GOP Texas state senator Charles Perry, would allow any professionals regulated by the state of Texas ― from medical providers and social workers to tow truck operators and electricians ― to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on personal religious beliefs.
Another, sponsored by GOP Texas house representative Scott Sanford, would allow wedding-related businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples.
And yet another, pushed by Rep. Phil King, another Republican, would allow official student organizations at public colleges and universities to discriminate against students for religious reasons, denying membership to LGBTQ students or keeping out Jewish and Muslim students.
These are just a few of the 17 bills described by a group fighting against them, the Texas Freedom Network (TFN) ― two of which are being debated this week by the Texas legislature, including today’s debate on restricting LGBT foster care and adoption ― as, once again, threatening the rights of LGBTQ people and many other Texans with what TFN calls an “avalanche” of bills.
“These religious refusal bills radically redefine a fundamental right by allowing religion as a justification to discriminate or refuse to obey laws you don’t like,” Kathy Miller, president of TFN, which held a press conference in Austin today along with the ACLU of Texas, said.
The authors of these bills don’t even seem to care that their legislation could also create serious conflicts with established civil rights protections based on race, gender and even religion itself. Their bills essentially turn religion into a weapon to hurt people who are different or don’t share the same beliefs.
Much attention has been focused on the draconian transgender “bathroom bill” that Lt. Governor Dan Patrick unveiled in the beginning of January and which has gotten considerable pushback from major companies and sports leagues, including the NFL and the NBA. But just as in 2015, when Republicans in the Texas legislature had pushed over 20 anti-LGBTQ bills, this legislative session religious zealots are seizing upon the issue of “religious liberty” to promote a license to discriminate against queer people in a broad array of areas.
Back then, activists impressively beat back the vast majority of the bills ― by no means an easy feat ― after national attention was brought to bear and companies stood up against them while local leaders and politicians fought very hard and won. This year, however, anti-LGBTQ forces have fine-tuned their religious liberty message nationwide ― riding a backlash to marriage equality ― and have the support of the White House, where Donald Trump may soon sign a “religious freedom” executive order and where Mike Pence, a long-time promoter of such discrimination, is vice president.
And there has been momentum in other states, moving these bills in recent weeks seemingly under the radar of a national media so focused on Trump and national politics. South Dakota this month became the first state in 2017 to pass a “religious liberty” bill, signed into law by the governor, that allows state-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against queer parents. Tennessee is moving forward with both a “Defense of Natural Marriage Act” and an anti-trans bill, and more states are moving ahead with other discriminatory laws.
Just two weeks ago, Justice Samuel Alito gave a speech in which he made a clarion call to religious conservatives, bragging that he’d supposedly predicted in his dissent in the Supreme Court’s landmark Obergefell decision on marriage equality in 2015 that LGBTQ people and their allies, emboldened by the ruling, would soon “vilify” others based on their religious beliefs. He told the faithful to get ready for “pitched battles in courts and Congress, state legislatures and town halls,” and he commanded them to “evangelize” about the “issue of religious freedom.”
As I wrote last week, Donald Trump’s Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, by his prior statements and decisions, appears primed to uphold such discriminatory religious exemptions. It’s one reason why it’s imperative that his nomination be voted down as Democrats appear to be ready to filibuster. But it’s just as imperative that all of us, right now, focus on what is happening in Texas, and beat back the opponents of equality once again.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msignorile