The Texas House is a 150-member chamber of sinners. We know this because it’s a 150-member chamber of humans and, we’re told, to be human is to be a sinner.
Still in all, it’s a moment of note when one member, during floor debate, declares another member’s sexual orientation a sin.
The topic came up during House debate of the State Bar reauthorization bill, a measure needed lest we stop getting new lawyers.
As it happens, some House members had some ideas on how to make the measure, Senate Bill 302, even better by amending it during Monday’s debate. Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, offered an amendment he said would protect lawyers from practicing in a way contrary to their religious beliefs.
Schaefer is among House members ever vigilant this session to put what they see as religious freedom protections into legislation. You’re for religious freedom, aren’t you? Stick around for a few minutes and we’ll test that notion in this context.
In his proposed religious freedom amendment to a religious freedom amendment (sometimes you need a flow chart to follow House floor action), Schaefer sought to prevent the State Bar from religious-based discrimination concerning a lawyer’s “continued practice of law.”
Democrats challenged Schaefer, including asking whether his proposal would allow a lawyer to deny legal services to a gay potential clients. Schaefer, responding to questions from Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, said he couldn’t “imagine that being a scenario.”
Bernal asked whether Schaefer’s amendment would allow attorneys to turn away clients based on religious beliefs. Schaefer responded by noting attorneys currently can turn down some clients, such as a civil attorney opting not to represent criminal defendants.
“What about race?” Bernal said.
“That’s not the intent of this,” Schaefer replied, noting federal law bars that.
“What about religion?” Bernal said, drawing another Schaefer response about how federal law also bars that.
“What about sexual orientation?” Bernal said, drawing a Schaefer response about a State Bar rule barring that.
Schaefer spoke of the importance of making sure an attorney and client are “matched” so the attorney could “zealously advocate their client’s position.”
Bernal then asked if a court-appointed attorney with religious beliefs against homosexuality should be allowed to decline to represent a lesbian.
Schaefer said he couldn’t “imagine that being a scenario.”
Then it was Rep. Celia Israel’s turn to question Schaefer.
“Mr. Schaefer,” said Israel, an Austin Democrat, “would you agree with me that there are those with sincerely held religious beliefs who have a literal interpretation of the Bible and think that homosexuality is a sin?”
“No question,” Schaefer responded.
“Do you agree that homosexuality is a sin?” Israel said.
“Yes,” he said, “I do.”
Israel then asked, “Do you think that if I, as a lesbian, were to ask an attorney to help me adopt children then (an) attorney could say, ‘I’m sorry. I have religious beliefs and, therefore because of this change in the law, I don’t think I could help you adopt a child.’”
Schaefer said, “There are many attorneys that would help a client in that position. And there’s nothing wrong with attorneys being matched to a client, so that they can in good conscience implement the desires of the client. That’s what you want. What you don’t want is a client that is asking an attorney to do something that they don’t want to do.”
So, Israel asked, could an attorney “who believes that Christianity is the only true religion” choose not to represent a non-Christian.
“They wouldn’t make much money if they did,” Schaefer joked.
Israel didn’t laugh. She said, “Answer my question, please.”
“The shoe applies to everyone equally,” Schaefer said. “That’s what’s great about this is that anyone — whether you’re a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Christian, atheist, agnostic — this is going to apply to you as well.”
Schaefer saw his amendment as religious liberty for all. Israel saw something else: “Do you see how some people would see what you’re doing as hatred applying equally?”
Schaefer called that “silly.”
The House approved Schaefer’s amendment 92-54. The bill now goes back to the Senate for review of changes made in the House.
The Schaefer-Israel discussion raises questions salient in our times.
Should a lawyer with religious objections to homosexuality have to represent a gay client seeking an adoption? The first question, of course, might be why that client would want that lawyer.
As you’ve heard on TV, you have a right to an attorney. But do you have the right to a specific attorney? Does every attorney have to represent every client who comes through the door? Of course not.
But are there some clients they shouldn’t be able to turn away for some reasons?
That’s the tough question. We have laws against discriminating based on gender, religion and race.
Should a Jewish lawyer be allowed to decline to represent a Nazi client? Should a gay lawyer who believes homosexuality isn’t a sin be allowed to decline to represent a baker claiming a religious-based right not to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples?
Remember when you thought religious freedom was a simple notion?