State Affairs Committee hears cases on religious freedom

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Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

After multiple religious freedom bills failed to see Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature last session, supporters and opponents of the bills spoke to members of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday to suggest possible pieces of legislation.

Although the legislature doesn’t reconvene until January, members of the committee were charged by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick with evaluating how local nondiscrimination ordinances — such as Houston’s equal rights ordinance, known as HERO, which failed by popular vote in November — fit into state and federal law, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Some Republican committee members, including chair and Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), argued the best route to protecting religious freedoms was through small steps in legislation that preserve individual religious liberties, while also ensuring members of the LGBT community are not inadvertently discirminated against in the process.

“I don’t believe there’s anyone in this legislature or this committee who wants to legislate discrimination,” Huffman said. “We are trying to protect individuals’ First Amendment rights.”

Last session, the state legislature approved Senate Bill 2065, which aimed to protect giving clergy and religious officials the discretion to refuse performing marriages that are in direct violation of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Although many other anti-gay marriage restrictions failed, SB 2065 — the Pastor Protection Act, or PPA — sailed  through both chambers that session with strong bipartisan support, strengthening the state’s religious freedom protections in preparation of the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for ACLU Texas, gave testimony against further anti-gay marriage legislation, arguing that the laws already in effect — such as the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA — sufficiently protect clergy from violating their religious beliefs.

“[The law] doesn’t say that religious liberty trumps the common good; it attempts to strike a balance,” Robertson said.

Throughout the hearing, many panelists testified that many of the local nondiscrimination ordinances throughout the state have a negative impact on religious freedom while not protecting any more people from discrimination than what is already on the books at the state and federal level.

“It doesn’t look like these local cities and municipalities are doing a very good job at handling this issue,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, a religious liberty advocacy group. “If cities are willing to pass these things, our belief is that they should first be looking to what’s at the state level before they get involved with these issues.”

After Houstonians voted against the failed HERO ordinance last November, many supporters of the anti-discrimination protections felt the city’s economy and reputation would be crushed by discouraging businesses and potential residents from moving into the city.

“Everybody gives up something to be a part of this [Houston] community,” said Lindsay Kelly, advertising and theatre and dance senior. “If you want to practice [your religion] in your home, feel free, but if it’s going to infringe on anybody else’s right to be who they are, then that’s not necessary or welcome.”

Huffman and many of the other panelists Wednesday morning disagreed with that idea, arguing that there have been no examples of substantive backlash from the failed ordinance nor any of the state’s religious freedom laws.

“I live in Houston; I see no evidence that it’s hurt our economy or hurt the city from a business perspective,” Huffman said. “As we move forward, … I hope we all have very reasonable and even-minded [ideas] about how we try to resolve these issues.”