Senate vote opens week key to gay-marriage debate

Opening a week that will see Republicans strive to limit the impact of court rulings on same-sex marriage, the Texas Senate voted largely along party lines Monday to support legal protections for clergy and houses of worship that object to gay nuptials.

Monday’s Senate skirmish, however, was a prelude to the week’s most high-profile fight, set to take place in the Texas House as early as Tuesday.

House Democrats are preparing to unleash an aggressive attack on House Bill 4105, which would all but ban gay marriage in Texas even if the U.S. Supreme Court was to rule this summer that same-sex couples have the right to marry in all 50 states.

Democrats will argue that the bill would enshrine discrimination into Texas law, hurt the state’s reputation and invite a backlash from businesses that will refuse to expand or relocate to Texas.

HB 4105, however, has 78 Republican co-authors — more than enough votes for passage — and the measure’s Republican champion, Rep. Cecil Bell, said it is needed to balance overreaching federal judges who have redefined the centuries-old meaning of marriage.

Bell’s bill would bar every government employee in Texas from issuing a same-sex marriage license, prohibit tax money from being spent to “enforce or recognize” same-sex unions, and ban state agencies and government officials from enforcing a court order requiring gay marriage.

“This House vote is a critical showdown,” Kathy Miller with Texas Freedom Network, which opposes HB 4105, said Monday. “The ballgame is really all being played in the Texas House of Representatives in the next 72 hours.”

A backlog of House bills could delay a vote on HB 4105 until late Tuesday or Wednesday. All House bills must be voted on by midnight Thursday, meaning even minor delays could have fatal implications for the bill.

Meantime, the Senate gave initial approval Monday to Senate Bill 2065, which seeks to protect religious objections to gay marriage if the state’s ban on same-sex unions is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court or by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is reviewing the Texas ban in a separate case.

Republicans insisted SB 2065 would protect only clergy and houses of worship from lawsuits or legal action if they refuse to marry same-sex couples, but Democrats argued that the bill was vaguely worded and could be used to expand discrimination against gay and lesbian Texans.

A Democratic attempt to add clarifying language, however, was rejected by Republicans on the recommendation of the bill’s author, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.

“Senate Bill 2065 will not limit or have any impact regarding who can apply for a government marriage license,” Estes said. “This bill makes it clear, from a state policy perspective, that clergy are not required to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies if doing so would violate a sincerely held religious belief.”

SB 2065 also would allow clergy members and religious organizations to refuse to provide services, open facilities or sell goods to gay couples. The legislation also stipulates that clergy, religious organizations and people employed by a religious group could not be sued for damages, prosecuted for criminal violations or lose tax-exempt status for refusing to provide services or open facilities to same-sex couples.

“I think the language is awfully broad,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, adding that a clause protecting groups supervised and controlled by a religious organization would seem to allow for-profit health care, nursing home and other companies to refuse to serve same-sex couples.

One Democrat joined every Senate Republican in Monday’s 21-10 vote for SB 2065 — Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville.

Final Senate approval is expected Tuesday, sending the bill to the House, where an identical measure is awaiting a floor vote that is not expected before Wednesday at the earliest.

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