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Texas conservatives launch next fight on religious liberty


About a dozen bills seek to protect religious practice by people and businesses.

Opponents say the bills seek to enable discrimination.

Conservative Republican senators and representatives Wednesday unveiled a dozen bills designed to protect religious practice, including efforts to allow Christians to opt out of serving gay couples if same-sex marriage violates their beliefs.

Unlike the 2015 session, when efforts to approve broad constitutional amendments to protect religious practice fell far short, the bills filed thus far focus on specific issues and were the result of a concerted effort to “make sure that religious liberty bills are at the forefront this session,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth.

“Religious liberties are the bedrock of what our state and our country were built on, and we want to make sure we are protecting those, preserving those and advancing those liberties as much as possible,” Krause said during a Capitol news conference.

Many of the bills have already attracted spirited opposition from critics who say they would authorize state-sanctioned discrimination.

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“Religious liberty protections allow us to worship freely and to be vocal about what our religious beliefs are,” said Chuck Smith with Equality Texas. “But religious liberty does not allow me to exempt myself from laws or allow me to use my religious beliefs against other people. That’s discrimination, that’s not religious liberty.”

“There’s no discrimination here,” Krause said. “We’re just trying to open it up to where people can continue to work and do what they love to do in the way that they want to do it.”

One of the farthest reaching proposals, known as the First Amendment Defense Act, would not permit state or local governments to penalize people for acting on religious beliefs opposing gay marriage.

“This will free up people to run their businesses in ways they believe,” said Krause, author of House Bill 1923. An identical version was filed by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, as Senate Bill 893.

House Bill 1813 by state Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, would allow county clerks, justices of the peace or judges to decline to issue marriage licenses based on religious beliefs, as long as another official can be found to perform the duties — even if located in another county. If an applicant is sent out of county, documents can be sent electronically, the bill says.

Identical legislation was filed by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, as Senate Bill 522.

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Angela Smith, the owner of a Hill Country bed and breakfast, told reporters that she does not advertise her property for weddings because her Christian faith would not allow her to book a same-sex ceremony. Her property is losing income, she said, adding that businesses and individuals need additional protection from government retribution for following their faith.

But Kathy Miller with the liberal group Texas Freedom Network said such notions violate the spirit of religious liberty.

“They propose to radically redefine a fundamental principle in order to discriminate and cause harm — and to disobey laws that apply to everyone — simply because they disagree with them,” she said.

Other bills discussed Wednesday included:

House Bill 1805 by state Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, would allow faith-based child-welfare and foster-care organizations to place children in homes that meet their religious standards, such as homes led by opposite-sex couples. Without the protection, Texas could lose organizations that provide much-needed help within the child-welfare system, Sanford said.

House Bill 522 by state Rep. Mike Schofield, R-Houston, would fix a law that unintentionally allowed homeowners associations to crack down on religious displays unless they were attached to the door or made of association-approved materials.

House Bill 421 by state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Farmers Branch, would exempt volunteers who provide security at churches or synagogues from having to acquire occupational guard licenses.

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