The fight over legislation to block transgender-friendly bathroom policies ventured into the religious realm Thursday as faith leaders gathered in Austin to promote competing views.
The day began with a closed-door briefing for Christian pastors by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials who see religious support as crucial to the passage of Senate Bill 6, which would limit the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.
The event by the U.S. Pastor Council was billed as “show up time” for those who would lead the fight in support of the bill.
That was followed by an afternoon gathering of more than 40 religious leaders — many holding signs reading “My faith does not discriminate” — who oppose SB 6 as immoral.
“Our lawmakers are considering anti-transgender bathroom bills and bills that come disguised as religious freedom — dangerous pieces of legislation that place a religious mask over what amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst of First United Methodist Church, where the event was held.
SB 6, one of Patrick’s priority bills, would bar public schools from allowing transgender students to use multistall bathrooms that conform with their gender identity. Businesses could choose their own bathroom policies, but city anti-discrimination ordinances would be blocked from requiring transgender-friendly public bathrooms.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has questioned the need for the bill, and Texas business and tourism leaders have denounced the legislation as damaging to the economy.
Thursday’s briefing for Christian pastors, held at Hyde Park Baptist Church, drew about three dozen protesters.
The event was closed to reporters, but a news release from the Texas Pastor Council said SB 6 was a central issue at the gathering.
Pastor Willie Davis of Houston said the fight over SB 6 reminded him of the battle against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, which voters rejected in 2015. The ordinance banned discrimination based on a range of factors, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
“We proved that these ordinances create unequal rights for a tiny few who are broken and hurting that, instead of pointing them toward hope and healing, trample on the safety, privacy and freedom of our women and children,” Davis said in a written statement.
The fight against transgender bathrooms was based on lessons learned in the civil rights movement, he said.
“Equal protection means exactly that, and we must keep all Texas women and children from suffering the violation of their privacy and safety that American blacks fought to eliminate,” Davis said.
Pastor Steve Branson of San Antonio said the religious leaders plan to hold lawmakers accountable for their actions on SB 6.
“This is simple. The Legislature will either protect decency, safety and freedom for all Texans equally by passing SB 6, or bow to radical liberalism that does not reflect the Texas we love,” Branson said.
A different message was offered at First United Methodist, where religious leaders met to mark the relaunch of Texas Believes, a coalition of interfaith leaders who minister to gay, lesbian and transgender Texans or adhere to a doctrine of inclusiveness.
It is time for progressive religious leaders to reclaim the moral center, said the Rev. Neil Cazares-Thomas of the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas.
“We were founded on a system of liberty and the pursuit of happiness and equality for all people, not just for some,” Cazares-Thomas said.
“We believe in the separation of church and state. But more than that, we believe in the separation of church and hate,” he said. “Enough is enough, and we are not going to be silent anymore.”
Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio said Jews, who face hatred “for simply being who we are,” are commanded to use that experience “to reach out and protect the most vulnerable in our midst.”
“A bill like SB 6, cloaked in religious platitudes, is offensive,” Nathan said. “We are all created in the image of God.”
The Rev. David Wynn, a transgender man and a pastor at Agape Metropolitan Community Church in Fort Worth, said he has grown weary of seeing his community pushed to the margins “under the guise of religious freedom.”
“For those who support these attempts to legislate discrimination based on religion and call themselves Christian, please stop. You don’t get it. It’s offensive,” he said.