2011 Lege Wrap Up: Religious Freedomby
It’s a biennial legislative tradition in Texas — trotting out a new batch of devious proposals to merge religion and government and attack religious pluralism. And 2011 was no exception. As the dust settles, the news on this front is mostly good for advocates of religious freedom, as none of the problematic legislation TFN worked to oppose on this issue ultimately made it to the governor’s desk. This should be considered a major victory, given the influx of culture warriors who joined the Texas Legislature this session.
Here are some highlights:
Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, waged a
(regular and special) session-long, one-man crusade against the fictitious threat of Sharia law in Texas. He filed a both a constitutional amendment ( HJR 57) and a bill (HB 911), both of which prevented Texas courts from considering foreign or international law. After watering down the language of his proposal — to pertain exclusively to Family Law cases and to prevent “foreign law” from contravening the U.S. Constitution, which is, of course, already the case — Berman managed to get his HB 911 voted out of committee. However, when it became clear that he was not going to get this bill onto the House floor for consideration, Berman made not one, not two, but THREE efforts to amend his provision onto larger bills passed by the House. But ultimately, the Senate showed no sympathy, refusing to incorporate Berman’s paranoia into Senate versions. Despite his persistent efforts, none of Berman’s anti-Sharia measures passed.
Science education also came under attack at the Legislature this year as creationists tried to open a new front in their anti-evolution crusade in Texas: college classrooms. Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, filed HB 2454, which would have barred universities from “discriminating against” faculty members or students based on the “conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.” In short, Zedler’s measure would have forced Texas institutions of higher education to look the other way when faculty and students present creationist arguments as legitimate science. Fortunately, Zedler’s efforts to reinstate medieval science in Texas colleges didn’t find much support among his fellow legislators, and the bill died quietly without a hearing.
Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, made a serious attempt to bar local school boards from prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments in local classrooms. The obviously unconstitutional HB 79 never even got a hearing in committee, but that didn’t discourage Flynn, who filed his entire bill as an amendment to critical budgetary legislation considered by the House in the waning days of the regular session. But in the end, Flynn was forced to pull down his amendment in the budget meltdown at the end of the session. The measure did not pass.
Rep. Jim Landtroop, R-Plainview, made a run at weakening the safeguards the state imposes upon public school Bible courses. His HB 3119 proposed expanding Bible courses from high school to middle school classrooms, while eliminating the existing requirement that teachers have certification in a relevant field. Fortunately, his fellow legislators wanted no part of these ill-considered proposals, and the bill died without a hearing.
While none of these frontal assaults on the church-state wall succeeded this session, the religious right achieved stunning success in their war on reproductive rights and women’s health this session. While such issue are mostly beyond the purview of TFN’s mission and advocacy work, as the state’s religious-right watchdog, we would be remiss if we didn’t note that those leading the attack against abortion, contraception and birth control did so from an explicitly religious motivation. It is not overstating the issue to say that the religious beliefs of an outspoken group of activists and legislators dictated crucial health policies in the state of Texas. That is not only an irresponsible way to make public health decisions; it is also a direct threat to religious liberty in our state.