Anti-Gay Marriage Group: ‘This is the Beginning of an Epic Battle’

Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values says courts could legalize polygamy next.

Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values outside a federal courthouse in San Antonio where the issue of same-sex marriage is being litigated, February 12, 2014.
Patrick Michels
Jonathan Saenz of Texas Values outside a federal courthouse in San Antonio where the issue of same-sex marriage is being litigated, February 12, 2014.

Just nine years ago, in 2005, Governor Rick Perry told the press that gay people in Texas (gay veterans, at that) should consider moving to other states if they wanted better treatment from their government. He was speaking at a ceremonial signing of legislation that put a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot in November 2005.

How quickly times change—though slower in Texas than elsewhere. Last week, that constitutional amendment was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court in San Antonio, following a number of similar rulings in states as red as Utah and Oklahoma. The matter will be appealed and could be taken up eventually by the U.S. Supreme Court.

To say the gay rights movement in the United States is experiencing a period of success is an understatement—even if the blowback to that success poses risks. Yet here in Texas, where you might expect more conflict about what remains a momentous social issue, you haven’t seen much yet beyond grandstanding. That’s partially a result of the fact that the Texas Legislature won’t meet again for another nine months. Texas groups agitated about the ruling haven’t had any space to float policy proposals or legislation.

But I was curious about what anti-gay marriage activists might have in store. So I called Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, the group which says it stands “for biblical, Judeo-Christian values by ensuring Texas is a state in which religious liberty flourishes, families prosper, and every human life is valued.”

Saenz, who responded to activists trying to strip anti-sodomy provisions out of Texas law last week by arguing that gay people only want gay rights because they’re gay, flatly denies the “homosexuals” are making any progress at all, and says his movement and Christians in the state won’t give up without a fight. What’s more, he left the door open to pushing for a bill, like the one recently vetoed in Arizona, that makes it legal for businesses to discriminate against gay people if serving them conflicts with a “deeply held religious belief.”

“This is the beginning of an epic battle,” Saenz told me. “There’s a strong likelihood that the Fifth Circuit [Court of Appeals] is going to overturn this decision. If Texas’ gay marriage laws are not constitutional, there’s no guarantee that the court won’t open up marriage to polygamy and polyandry.”

There’s definitely a chance the traditionally conservative Fifth Circuit overturns the Texas decision, but gay rights lawyers in Texas and elsewhere know these cases will be appealed and are laying the groundwork for the Supreme Court to take up the issue. That’s the reason U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia stayed his own ruling, as has happened in many states. It puts the ruling on hold until a higher court can weigh in. But even in that, Saenz sees encouragement.

The fact that Garcia stayed his ruling, Saenz says, “shows some hesitation on his part. I think the homosexual advocates were ready to go on down to the clerk’s office” and get married, he says cheerily, “and he put a stop to that.”

Garcia happens to be the brother-in-law of state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who is running for lieutenant governor. I asked Saenz if he perceived judicial bias.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” he says. “What we have here is the homosexuals being used by the Democrats to gain more political power.” He added: “The homosexuals have more political power than ever before.”

But the most enlightening part of our conversation came when we talked about SB 1062, the recently-vetoed Arizona legislation that attracted national attention. Supporters said the bill protected religious liberty while critics, including a number of Republicans, said it amounted to legalizing anti-gay discrimination. “Religious liberty” has become an increasingly important issue for conservatives ever since a number of bakeries across the nation got in hot water for refusing to make cakes for gay wedding services.

A number of states have considered bills carving out an exemption in non-discrimination laws to allow businesses to deny service to LGBTQ people for religious reasons. Some proposed laws even go so far as to extend that right to venues like hotels and restaurants, and to government workers. Arizona has been the only state to pass such a law so far, but it backfired when, in a surprising reversal, arch-conservative governor Jan Brewer vetoed it after mounting pressure. Nevertheless, it stands to reason we’ll see an attempt to advance a similar measure in Texas in the 2015 session.

Saenz is firmly convinced of the need for such laws.

The veto of the Arizona bill, he says, provides incontrovertible proof that “homosexuals do want to force people of faith to be part of their gay marriage ceremonies. They want to use government power to force people of faith to be part of their homosexual lifestyle and ceremonies,” he said.

That’s something of a new tack for Saenz’s crowd. The rhetoric has always been there: Anti-gay marriage activists have long held out the prospect of a dark future in which Baptist ministers are frog-marched to Southern Decadence to preside over Village People-themed weddings. But new developments make that future seem, to some, like an immediate threat, to be confronted in the near future—and that’s been feeding blowback in red states.

“Arizona made it real clear to people of faith what homosexual advocates want,” Saenz says. “They seem to not be satisfied unless they can force people of faith to celebrate their lifestyle. I think you’re going to see a growing concern in Texas, as you are across the country.”

I ask him if Texas Values would support legislation for the 2015 session, or is working to lay the groundwork for it. “That’s all I’m going to say on that subject,” he says.

Texas Values has been active in mobilizing against the gay rights movement in Texas for some time. The group organized in opposition to San Antonio’s LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance last year, unsuccessfully. In the 2013 legislative session, Texas Values also supported bills that would punish school districts across the state, like the Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, which extend partner benefits to gay couples.

For much of the country, it might feel like the argument over gay marriage is reaching a tipping point. But the fight over the issue could easily become prolonged in Texas. After all, 2014 is an election cycle when Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has argued in court that the state has a need to discourage “prurient interests in autonomous sex and the pursuit of sexual gratification unrelated to procreation” is running for governor while defending the state’s marriage laws.

The possibility of same-sex marriage ceremonies in Beaumont and Lubbock is edging closer as a crop of even-more conservative candidates are primed to win state offices. As the issue continues to get litigated, expect to see an organized fightback from Texas conservatives.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin, where he grew up. His work has appeared in Politico Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, among others. He graduated from The New School in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in history.

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Published at 3:42 pm CST