Thwarted from passing broad protections for religious practices that opponents see as discriminatory, socially conservative Republicans in the Texas House have adopted a piecemeal approach — adding amendments barring agencies from infringing on the religious beliefs of state-licensed professionals.
Thus far, the amendments have been added to must-pass legislation for agencies that regulate nurses, lawyers and pharmacists, with similar actions likely as the legislative session winds down toward its May 29 finale.
“We’re always looking,” said Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who has led the amendment effort. “It’s such an important issue that you try to make ground and advance the ball wherever you can.”
Civil rights groups, including the Texas Freedom Network and ACLU of Texas, are alarmed by the tactic, saying Krause and his supporters are trying to radically redefine “religious freedom” to use faith as an excuse to discriminate, particularly against gay, lesbian and transgender Texans.
“Religion should never be used as a weapon to divide us, but these lawmakers are attempting to do just that,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.
The amendments could be used to deny medical treatment to a gay patient or emergency contraception to a rape survivor, Miller said. “We’re talking about doing real harm,” she said.
The clash took on partisan tones during Monday’s debate over a Krause amendment that sought to protect lawyers from punishment or any “adverse” action for practicing law according to their sincerely held religious beliefs.
Several Democrats argued that the vaguely worded provision could deprive clients of zealous representation by their lawyers.
Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, went a step further, urging legislators to reject the amendment as a way to rein in Krause and other members of the Texas Freedom Caucus — a dozen tea party Republicans who have been extremely vocal on matters of religious liberty and limited government.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is really about letting them take control of the floor. This is about the membership abdicating its responsibility,” Anchia said during the debate.
“This is a vote on good and bad policy — and who is running this joint — on this amendment right now,” said Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.
The amendment was adopted 85-69 on a largely party-line vote.
18 bills filed
The fight over the meaning of religious freedom was expected to be a central feature of the 2017 legislative session.
Conservative Republicans filed about 18 bills to protect people from being forced to violate, either by government rules or threats of a lawsuit, a sincerely held religious belief.
One bill would let wedding-related businesses decline to serve same-sex couples. Another provided a defense to lawsuits alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Others sought to bar state agencies or local governments from applying anti-discrimination regulations to gay, lesbian and transgender Texans.
Most of the bills, however, weren’t even granted a public hearing — one of the earliest steps in the legislative process.
There have been two notable exceptions:
• House Bill 3859 would let faith-based foster care and adoption agencies refuse to place children with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender households over religious objections. Passed by the House on May 10, the bill could be voted on in the Senate as early as Friday.
• Senate Bill 522 would let county clerks opt out of providing same-sex marriage licenses, but the county would have to find or hire somebody else to provide the service. Passed by the Senate on April 12, the bill was approved by a House committee Tuesday but hasn’t been sent to the House floor.
‘We want to be proactive’
With many priorities stalled in both chambers, Krause said he and others have begun targeting “sunset” bills that reauthorize state agencies that license or regulate professions.
“We want to be proactive to protect Texans’ right to the free exercise of religion in any field or any profession that they choose,” he said.
“In the past couple of years, people wanted to water that down to be the freedom to worship — meaning go wherever you want to on Saturday or Sunday, or however you want to worship,” Krause said. “But the free exercise of religion wasn’t just to be confined in the four walls of worship. It was to be wherever you wanted, however you wanted to express that.”
But Miller of the Texas Freedom Network said religious freedom was always meant to be balanced with the civil liberties and rights of other people.
“Religion is not a license to discriminate, and the free exercise of religion is not a license to harm other people,” she said.