How Did the Tea Party/Religious Right Lose So Badly on LGBT Discrimination in the Texas Legislature?

by Dan Quinn

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature is the complete failure of the broadest legislative assault on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community anywhere in the country. It’s so remarkable in large part because Texas is deeply red state in which religious-right/tea party activists make up a powerful part of the Republican Party’s base.

Moreover, consider that while anti-LGBT discrimination bills were failing in the Texas Legislature, they were passing in other states. For example, North Carolina’s lawmakers are on the verge of allowing public officials to refuse to issue marriage licenses to any couple whose relationship violates that official’s religion beliefs. Lawmakers in Alabama are getting closer to scrapping marriage licenses altogether — for everyone. They would force couples to enter into a contract and file it at the local courthouse. This process could create new obstacles for same-sex couples even if the Supreme Court rules they have the constitutional right to marry.

Following last November’s elections, religious-right and tea party groups in Texas confidently prepared their campaign to enshrine in state law discrimination against LGBT people in a wide range of areas, including marriage and public services. When the Texas Legislature convened in January, observers worried were that many parts of that discriminatory agenda would eventually make it into law.

Lawmakers filed at least 23 proposed bills promoting and even requiring discrimination against LGBT Texans and their families. The bills included measures that would have allowed the use of religion to discriminate, subverted a potential U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, swept away local anti-discrimination protections, and turned transgender people into criminals for using public restrooms.

After the first half of the session, three bills emerged as the most likely candidates for passage. One, HB 4105 by state Rep. Cecil Bell, barred state and local officials from issuing, enforcing or recognizing licenses for same-sex marriages regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says about the issue. Another, HB 3864 by state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, allowed child welfare service providers to use religion to discriminate in adoption, foster care and other child placement services. A third, HB 3567/SB 2065 by Rep. Sanford and state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, allowed clergy and religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, to discriminate against legally married same-sex couples.

Supporters of those bills used public hearings to trot out the usual vile and offensive attacks on LGBT people, including comparisons of same-sex marriage to promoting bestiality and pedophilia. In the end, however, the only bill that passed the Legislature in any form was a watered-down version of SB 2065. The ability of religiously affiliated institutions to discriminate was stripped from the bill in committee. So the bill simply restates  what the U.S. Constitution as well as the Texas Constitution and law already protect — the right of clergy to decline to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs.

But the rest of those 23 anti-LGBT bills failed to pass the Legislature despite intense pressure from religious-righters and tea party activists. So how did that happen?

A Strong Coalition for Equality
It became clear even before the session began that stopping all of the anti-LGBT bills would require pulling together a strong coalition of civil liberties and LGBT-rights organizations. The Texas Freedom Network and ACLU of Texas launched a formal campaign, Texans Equal Under Law, to help mobilize opposition to those bills and champion equality for all. But we also worked very closely with other fantastic partners, especially Equality Texas, Human Rights Campaign and Texas for Marriage. Each of these valuable partners — and others — brought critical resources to the fight for equality in Texas. This was a team effort.

In addition, Texas Wins, another organization defending equality in Texas, released a poll in early May showing that nearly 63 percent of Texans support a law barring discrimination against LGBT people. The poll also showed that more than 64 percent of Texans reject the notion that same-sex marriage threatens religious freedom.

Grassroots Opposition
Our coalition of organizations helped mobilize an unprecedented outpouring of grassroots opposition to the anti-LGBT bills. Tens of thousands of emails and phone calls flooded Capitol offices. Activists also visited officers personally, calling on legislators to take a stand for equality and reject the hateful rhetoric and divisive agenda of anti-LGBT groups. The efforts of these grassroots activists across Texas were a critical part of our campaign throughout the legislative session.

Indiana
When Indiana lawmakers in March passed a law allowing religion to be used as an excuse to discriminate, the reaction from business, civil liberties groups and others was swift, loud and very negative. Major companies announced they would reconsider, delay or cancel plans to move to or expand in the state. National organizations warned that they would change plans to hold major events there. All of that plus intense pressure from grassroots and civil liberties organizations forced the state’s leaders to revise the law so that it can’t be used to discriminate. But the damage already done to the state’s brand — it’s national reputation — served as a warning of what could happen if Texas lawmakers passed similar legislation.

Business
Business leaders in Texas applied an important lesson learned in Indiana: nip the problem in the bud. The state’s most influential business organization, the conservative Texas Association of Business (TAB), worked early in the session to persuade legislators in Austin not to pass discrimination measures disguised as “religious freedom” laws. TAB also joined with the Texas Freedom Network, the ACLU of Texas, Equality Texas and key legislators in an early-April press conference critical of those bills. Major companies like Dell and American Airlines announced their opposition to discriminatory legislation like the marriage bill, HB 4105. Meanwhile, more than 250 Texas companies were signing on to a general pledge, sponsored by Texas Competes, in support of treating LGBT Texans fairly and equally under the law.

Religious-righters were furious. Jonathan Saenz — head of Texas Values, an affiliate of Focus on the Family — attacked TAB’s leaders as “left-leaning” and “liberal,” complaining that they had “put all their investment in the homosexual agenda” and were engaged in a “war on values” in Texas. Dave Welch of the Texas Pastor Council denounced what he described as an “amoral business lobby.” Steven Hotze of Conservative Republicans of Texas portrayed TAB as in league with “homofascists.” They’re still foaming at the mouth.

In the end, however, those temper tantrum didn’t matter. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a hardcore religious-righter and tea party hero going into the session, was left with pushing a nonbinding and petty Senate resolution in support of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Lt. Gov. Patrick then declared that he was satisfied with being on the wrong side of history.

The fight for LGBT equality is far from won in Texas, of course. TFN and our coalition partners will continue working to bar discrimination against LGBT people wherever they live in Texas. But for now, we can celebrate a major civil rights victory that many thought might be impossible this year in the Texas Legislature.

 

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