This Anti-LGBTQ Bill in Texas Is Pence’s “Religious Freedom” Law in New Clothes

Senate Bill 17 would protect licensed professionals who discriminate in the name of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

An anti-LGBTQ bill that passed the Texas Senate on Tuesday would give greater license to professionals operating in 150 different professions to deny service to LGBTQ customers.

Authored by Texas State Sen. Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), Senate Bill 17 would prevent state licensing agencies from taking action against licensed professionals who discriminate in the name of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Perry, a practicing CPA, claims such a law is necessary during “an era where Christian faith, specifically, seems to be under attack.”

Republicans in the upper house of the Texas State Legislature appear to agree with him. SB 17 passed the Lone Star State’s Senate this week following a 19 to 12 vote. One Democrat, Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, crossed the aisle to vote with his GOP colleagues in favor of the bill. One Republican, Sen. Kel Seliger of Amarillo, broke with his party to vote against.

But as the legislation heads to the Texas House, civil rights groups warn its impact on the lives of LGBTQ people stands to be incalculable. According to the HRC, the list of professions which require a license to operate in the state of Texas includes counselors, doctors, firefighters, funeral directors, judges, psychologists, social workers, surgeons, therapists, and veterinarians.

Getty
The Texas State Capitol in Austin.

While opposition to the legislation has largely focused on medical professions, Luca Maurer, director of LGBTQ Education, Outreach and Services at Ithaca College, says it could allow plumbers to refuse to fix a transgender woman’s sink, or a barber could decline to cut a gay man’s hair.

“In the early ’90s, there were a couple of states that had discussed the idea of making it okay for health care providers not to treat people with HIV,” he tells NewNowNext. “This reminds me of that time of demonizing and othering people. Someone can say, ‘I choose not to be your kid’s pediatrician, I choose not to be your kid’s teacher, or I am not going to tow your car because of deeply held religious beliefs.’”

The proposal, which “legitimizes treating people differently” based on who they are or who they love, is “antithetical to democracy, to justice, and to freedom,” Maurer adds.

Angela Hale, a spokesperson for the statewide advocacy group Equality Texas, claims SB 17 is essentially “bathroom bill 2.0.” In 2017, conservatives attempted to pass a bill—known as SB 6—that would restrict the ability of trans people to use restrooms in accordance with their gender identity. That effort failed, even after Gov. Greg Abbott called a 30-day special session to force through the legislation.

“We are going to be fighting every day until the legislative session is over to stop the bill from becoming law,” Hale tells NewNowNext. “It’s passed the Senate, and our goal is stop it in the House, shut it down, and put this session to bed.”

While SB 17 may be the just the latest mechanism by which Texas Republicans hope to legalize some form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, its impact more closely resembles Indiana’s woebegone Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Signed by then-governor Mike Pence in March 2015, nationwide boycotts against RFRA led to $60 million in economic losses for the state.

Al Drago/CQ Roll Call
Protest of North Carolina’s HB 2.

That law was amended to excise its anti-LGBTQ elements, but if left on the books, it would have done what SB 17 seeks to permit: widespread, religious-based discrimination.

At the time, RFRA opponents warned its language was overly broad, even creating protections for individuals who felt their faith was likely to be burdened by providing services to individuals who conflict with their religious beliefs. According to the Indianapolis Star, it also appeared “to allow using exercise of religion as a defense in judicial or administrative proceedings between private parties.”

Maurer claims individuals could still be fired by their employers for refusing service to LGBTQ customers under SB 17. But similar to RFRA, the law would “create a legal defense” that those who choose to discriminate could use in court.

“When someone is at work—up until now in this country—there’s been a professional expectation that you will behave in a capacity that’s within professional expectations,” he says. “It could be a very slippery slope in terms of legalizing discrimination against large segments of the population. That is really terrifying.”

Given its extreme implications, SB 17 has been met with intense criticism. Rebecca Marquez, Texas state director for HRC, calls the Senate’s approval of the bill “a dark moment for Texas,” while Equality Texas Interim Executive Director Samantha Smoot claims the legislation represents the “no. 1 threat” to the lives and safety of LGBTQ Texans during the 2019 legislative session.

To date, more than 50 businesses have come out to oppose SB 17, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard, and PayPal. In an open letter, these companies say they will “continue to oppose any unnecessary, discriminatory, and divisive measures that would damage Texas’ reputation.”

“Such measures are inconsistent with an innovative, forward-facing Texas that we can all be proud of,” they claim, a nod to the 19 anti-LGBTQ bills put forward in the Lone Star State’s legislature this year.

Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick.

However, proponents of SB 17 deny its intention is to single out the LGBTQ community. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—who has earmarked the legislation as a top priority in 2019—says it ensures “that no Texan will ever have to choose between their job and their faith.” Perry claims the measure “does nothing to promote any illegal or discriminatory activity.”

“This bill does not, I repeat, this bill does not permit an individual to violate state or federal law,” he says.

The obvious problem with Perry’s assurance is that anti-LGBTQ discrimination has not been outlawed in the state of Texas or at the federal level. Perry’s state remains one of 29 in the U.S. where it is perfectly legal to fire someone, refuse to hire them, or deny them housing both on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

When State Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) introduced an amendment to SB 17 that would prevent “discriminatory activity” against LGBTQ people, it was rejected by a five-vote margin.

It’s an open question for now how SB 17 will be received in the Texas House. Although newly anointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen opposes the introduction of another bathroom bill in the 2019 session, Texas passed a “religious freedom” law in June 2017 allowing foster care and adoption agencies to refuse placement to same-sex couples in accordance with their faith beliefs.

Opponents claimed the law would also allow child placing agencies to turn away Muslim, interfaith, or Jewish couples, as well as single parents. Similar concerns have been raised about SB 17.

Nico Lang is an award-winning journalist and editor. His work has been featured in INTO, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Esquire, and the L.A. Times.
@Nico_Lang