Texans Oppose Using Religion as a License to Discriminate

“Religious Exemption” bills undermine equality and open state to litigation

March 11, 2019

AUSTIN -Today, Texans spoke out against legislation allowing religion to be used as a legal justification for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBTQ) Texans.

State legislators have filed at least 14 such bills this legislative session. These bills would make a mockery of religious freedom, guaranteeing that discrimination will be permitted. The bills would allow businesses, licensed professionals and even government officials to use religion to exempt themselves from nondiscrimination laws and policies, including licensing and professional standards.

Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, but it is not a license to discriminate.

A survey conducted in 2017 by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that:

57 percent of Texans oppose allowing businesses to refuse for religious reasons to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people.
64 percent of Texans favor laws that protect LGBTQ people against discrimination in jobs, public services and housing.

At a briefing today at the Texas Capitol, public policy experts and representatives of social workers, health care providers and clergy discussed the negative impact these bills could have on Texans.

“When I became a nurse, I signed a medical code of ethics that commits me to treat all patents to the best of my ability, regardless of who they are or how they came to me. And in any case, I treat my patients the way I would want to be treated if I were in their place, with respect and dignity. It would be a tragedy if our state’s laws now threw open the door to medical professionals using religion to pick and choose which patients they will treat and care for,” said Selena Xie, President of the Austin/Travis County EMS Employee Association and an Austin hospital ICU nurse.

“Religious exemptions are in direct opposition to the Code of Ethics for all mental health practitioners in Texas. It is the duty of all practitioners to place the client’s autonomous self above any personal beliefs they may hold. Texas cannot have a healthy network of mental health professionals if laws enable providers to deny services based on their own values,” stated Will Francis, LMSW and Government Relations Director for the Texas Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Two years ago, Texas legislators passed HB 3859, permiting discrimination by state-funded foster care organizations against LGBTQ people, same-sex couples and others if they say that working with them conflicts with the organization’s religious beliefs. Texas has also filed for a federal waiver requesting permission to exempt federally funded child welfare agencies from non-discrimination requirements. Such exemptions can create a license to discriminate against virtually anyone.

“We all agree that religious freedom is vital and that is why it is enshrined in the Constitution. But religious freedom doesn’t mean imposing your beliefs on others or allowing religion to be used as a license to discriminate and cause harm,” said Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network.

“The legislation we are seeing this session is part of a national strategy to undermine civil rights, including the rights of LGBTQ Texans,” said Sarah Warbelow, Legal Director for the Human Rights Campaign.

“Senate Bill 1107, introduced by Senator Kolkhorst seeks to allow ‘a conscientious refusal’ of a health care service. As a transgender woman, this literally means my doctor, any of my doctors, even my dentist, could refuse to treat me simply because I am transgender. My very identity, my basic humanity and how I should be respected and treated like anyone else has nothing to do with “a belief in and relation to God, a religious faith or spiritual practice; or a moral philosophy or ethical position,’” said Danielle Skidmore, EQTX Foundation Board Member from Austin.

In an example of how these kinds of bills can open a state up to litigation, last month, a Catholic mother filed a lawsuit after a publicly funded Protestant foster care agency in South Carolina refused to work with her because of her religion. The same agency had earlier refused to work with a Jewish couple.

The legislative briefing was sponsored by a coalition of state and national organizations that support equality for LGBTQ Texans, including Equality Texas, Transgender Education Network of Texas, Texas Freedom Network, ACLU of Texas and the Human Rights Campaign.