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On Thanksgiving night, a religiously motivated political extremist on a suicide mission took to the streets of downtown Austin, wearing military-style riot gear and armed with illegally obtained automatic weapons and a van full of explosives, just as revelers from the surrounding entertainment districts were pouring into the street after bar-closing time.

Larry McQuilliams, 49, trekked across the city from the federal courthouse to the Mexican Consulate to police headquarters, firing hundreds of rounds and attempting—unsuccessfully—to set off improvised explosive devices along the way. No one was injured except McQuilliams, who was killed by police.

Following McQuilliams’ rampage, the Austin American-Statesman went looking for more about this homegrown terrorist. According to the Statesman headline, he was a Midwesterner who’d sought a “fresh start in Austin.” The Statesman went on to interview McQuilliams’ neighbor, Katie Matlack, who described him as a “very kind person” who was “frustrated.” (Later, Matlack wrote a first-person piece for the Observer describing McQuilliams’ relationship with his South Austin neighbors).

I thought of the coverage following the police shootings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

A New York Times piece described Brown, who was stopped for jaywalking before being shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, as “no angel.” After officer Tim Loehmann shot and killed Rice at the park gazebo where Rice was playing with a replica gun, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hurried to run a story about Rice’s parents’ criminal records, apparently desperate to associate the boy with criminality any way it could.

Surely these people must have done something to invite their deaths at the hands of law enforcement?

Meanwhile, a white Christian man plans and executes a terrorist attack in Texas’ capital and he’s just a nice guy who lost his way, a Renaissance Faire enthusiast in a tricorn hat who enjoyed tubing and trying to blow up government buildings.

This response accomplishes two things: It obfuscates the role of racism and white supremacy in the construction of the “victim” in our discourse, and it excuses white-perpetrated violence as a fluke, rather than as the not-illogical result of pro-gun, anti-government and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Austin police chief Art Acevedo was unequivocal in calling McQuilliams a terrorist, and local and national news outlets did pick up on that language in the brief spate of coverage following McQuilliams’ spree, though rare was the coverage that exposed and examined the connections between McQuilliams’ beliefs and mainstream conservative ideology about border militarization, the unassailable right to bear arms and an imagined war on Christian religious freedoms.

We heard no calls for a national conversation about religious extremism in the Christian community, no hand-wringing cable news pundits imploring American whites to get their violent males in line, no somber public statements from Christian leaders hurrying to distance themselves from McQuilliams and his ilk.

And while Acevedo connected McQuilliams’ motivations with right-wing rhetoric, he also called McQuilliams a “lone wolf.” Indeed, McQuilliams appears to have acted alone, but we should not pretend that his ideology or his actions came wholly formed out of some unfathomable ether.

Though his violent downtown tour blessedly resulted in no civilian deaths, McQuilliams follows in the terroristic footsteps of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and Joseph Andrew Stack, who flew his single-engine plane into an Austin IRS building in 2010.

The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a tally of dozens of such plots and attacks on government buildings, abortion providers, gay bars, civil rights groups and minority neighborhoods. And yet the media ignores the pattern time and time again, choosing instead to focus on what a 12-year-old boy might have done to provoke a police officer to shoot him on sight or whether an 18-year-old Missouri man deserved to be murdered for jaywalking.

In the aftermath of McQuilliams’ rampage, one Austinite told a local news team that he’d seen the white man in riot gear and wasn’t immediately sure if he should report the gunshots. Maybe, he’d thought, McQuilliams was one of the good guys.

I don’t wonder where he got that idea.

Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIP's: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.
Christopher Hooks
Ken Paxton, after being sworn in, stands among Texas GOP VIPs: From left to right, Governor-elect Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Justice Don Willett, and Governor Rick Perry.

 

During last year’s elections, Ken Paxton sometimes felt like the odd man out. After trampling his opponents in the Republican primary for attorney general, Paxton admitted to violating state securities law—a potential felony—after unethical business dealings surfaced in the press. He stopped campaigning, more or less, and his fellow ticket-mates, like soon-to-be governor Greg Abbott, shied away.

But he was carried across the finish line, sure enough, and today, at a star-studded inauguration in the Texas Senate, he was welcomed back as a member of the state GOP in full standing. A felony indictment may still be coming—but as the state’s new top lawman, he’s had a pretty unusual rise to the highest echelon of state power.

On hand to celebrate Paxton’s ascension were a who’s who of Republican leaders. Sitting behind the lieutenant governor’s dais at the front of the chamber were David Dewhurst, its current occupant, and Dan Patrick, his soon-to-be successor. Rick Perry was present. Ted Cruz, Perry’s presumptive 2016 rival, was there too. (This was, in part, a Cruz moment: Paxton was his candidate, and his election marks another half-step in the transformation of the state’s political landscape in Cruz’s image.) And there was Greg Abbott, though he seemed dwarfed by his compatriots.

There were, in other words, a lot of bruised and competing egos in the Senate today. The men seemed in a rush to outdo each other in their effusive praise for Paxton: Dewhurst said the new attorney general would be “sustained” by his Christian faith, while Patrick told the crowd he knew in his bones that Paxton would be “first and foremost a servant to his lord and savior, Jesus Christ.”

Perry, our state’s chief lay minister, led the crowd in prayer, in which he managed to slip in a few digs at the president. And Cruz outdid them all, thanking Abbott for his protection of Texas against the “United Nations and the World Court,” along with those pesky feds, and predicted Paxton would do the same.

This was technically Paxton’s show, but his speech, delivered in his typically lethargic style, will not long be remembered. Why are Barack Obama’s federales coming for Texas, he asked? It’s “because we’ve been successful,” he says. But he’s not too worried, because Texas, the “shining city on a hill” that Reagan mentioned that one time in that speech, is strong, and also, our Founding Fathers persevered through the storm with the spirit of 1776, and we rose up to fight those two world wars, and you know, all that good stuff. God bless our great state.

Ken Paxton with his family
Christopher Hooks
Paxton with family

A large number of Paxton’s family were in attendance—his wife sang the national anthem—and they can be suitably proud. The boy from McKinney (well, he was born in some place called Minot, North Dakota but that’s not important here) has done good, in spite of himself. And perhaps the large turnout of notable conservatives today is a sign that if and when the indictment comes down, the party will stand by him.

The closest analogue to Paxton in recent Texas history might be Jim Mattox, the sleazy Democratic populist who took control of the attorney general’s office in 1983 and was indicted just nine months later. Can our humble champion beat Mattox’s record? Today, pomp and circumstance; but the clock is ticking.

Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.
Photo courtesy of Cleopatra DeLeon
Cleopatra DeLeon, left, and Nicole Dimetman, are one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas marriage case.

Same-sex marriage will arrive in Texas before Easter, according to an attorney for two couples who are challenging the state’s marriage bans in federal court.

Daniel McNeel Lane Jr., of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in San Antonio, made the prediction as he prepared for oral arguments in the case at the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans on Friday.

U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February, but stayed his decision pending an appeal from Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Last week, the 5th Circuit Court unveiled the three-judge panel that will hear the Texas appeal—along with marriage cases from Louisiana and Mississippi—on Jan. 9. Although the 5th Circuit is among the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country, Lane said he’s confident the panel will rule in favor of marriage equality within a few months and that the decision will take effect immediately.

Lane.Neel
Daniel McNeel Lane Jr.

“I don’t think it will be stayed, certainly not by the Supreme Court, I don’t think it will be reviewed by the Supreme Court, and I think we’ll have marriage equality by Easter,” Lane told the Observer on Friday. “That’s my prediction. … That’s my strong feeling.”

On the same day as oral arguments at the 5th Circuit, the U.S. Supreme Court will meet to decide whether to hear same-sex marriage cases from four other states, which could pave the way for a nationwide ruling in favor of marriage equality as early as June. As of Tuesday, when same-sex marriage takes effect in Florida, Texas will be one of only 14 states where it’s still prohibited.

“Whatever the Supreme Court does, we will still make our arguments, the 5th Circuit is likely still to rule, and let the chips fall where they may. I’m sure that’s what our panel’s view will be,” Lane said. “The two will not be connected, and this court knows that if it affirms Judge Garcia, and finds that residents of this state have a right to marry the person they love, regardless of gender … it’s likely that that freedom, that equality, that justice, will come very swiftly, and the tide of that equality will never be turned back.”

Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, which is handling the Louisiana marriage case, said marriage equality in the 5th Circuit before Easter is “certainly one possibility.” But Upton added, “There are a couple of things that could throw a wrench in that prediction.”

Upton said if the 5th Circuit panel rules in favor of marriage equality, it’s possible the state of Texas would appeal the decision to the 15-member court en banc—which would be “a more hostile setting.”

“I don’t think the panel would stay it, but if the 5th Circuit grants rehearing before the entire court, the panel decision is automatically vacated,” Upton said. “So, I suspect Abbott’s office would play that card since they have nothing to lose.”

Upton said the 5th Circuit panel could also simply decide to wait for the high court.

“If they [Supreme Court justices] grant any petitions, and because they aren’t staying cases anymore, I think any subsequent court of appeals case will be held to see what the ultimate answer is,” he said.

Lambda Legal has asked the high court to review the Louisiana case even though the 5th Circuit hasn’t decided it yet—a type of request that’s rarely granted but that will also be considered Friday. Upton said whether the Supreme Court agrees to hear the Louisiana case, one of the other four cases or some combination, he thinks Friday’s proceedings in New Orleans will be upstaged by what happens in Washington.

“The arguments in the 5th [Circuit] will not be the real story that day,” he said. “It will be [the Supreme Court]. I feel pretty sure they will grant something that day.”

Although there’s “an outside chance” the high court court will agree to hear one of the cases but hold it over until its next term, Upton said he believes the real question before the 5th Circuit panel is whether same-sex marriage arrives in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi in June—or sometime before then.

Kenneth D. Upton Jr.
Kenneth D. Upton Jr.

However, that’s not an insignificant question for people like Cleopatra DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman of Austin, one of the two plaintiff couples in the Texas case.

DeLeon and Dimetman were inspired to join the lawsuit after DeLeon experienced complications giving birth to their first child. That’s when the couple realized that if something had happened to DeLeon, due to Texas’ marriage bans, Dimetman couldn’t have made medical decisions for the baby.

Now, Dimetman is pregnant with the couple’s second child—and due in 10 weeks. Despite potential risks involving air travel in the third trimester of pregnancy, DeLeon and Dimetman plan to be at Friday’s hearing pending a doctor’s final approval this week.

“We didn’t want to be doing this, but it’s very important,” Dimetman said. “The reason it’s important for us to go is the same reason it’s important for us to be in this fight. We’re doing this for our family and for families like ours all over the state.

“I’m due in March, but every day babies are born to same-sex couples,” Dimetman added. “Every day that we are not granted our rights is a big deal.”

To further illustrate the point, Lane said he had a gay acquaintance in Florida who passed away during the holidays and had a partner of 20 years.

“Had he lived until today, he could be married, and that’s the difference of a week,” Lane said. “We know that we have hundreds of thousand of citizens who are subject to these unjust laws in Texas, and we know that a number of them will die every week before they have justice and before we have equality, and we need to right a terrible wrong, and we need to do it now.”

The Things We Feared, 2014

"A Clockwork Orange"
"A Clockwork Orange"

As the year 20 and 14 draws, blessedly, to a close, let us reflect on that one thing that brought us together: fear. This was a year that saw a succession of freak-outs, each one eclipsing the next in apocalyptic panic. Texas seemed to be under constant siege: from children, from prayer-rug-wielding terrorists, from invisible (and possibly airborne!) West African diseases, from liberals. Just as one crisis was fading, another one roared to life. The fear was free-form, uncontained, whipping from one target to the next—and, then, like a flash mob with a short attention span, dispersing. Quickly, the old crises—the ones that just months before were supposed to cripple our way of life, rob us of our sovereignty, destroy our communities—were discarded, forgotten, as if they’d never mattered.

Imagine a thousand Alamos—and then forget almost all of them. But should auld crises be forgot, and never brought to mind?

In the interest of remembering, in the spirit of the new year, and perhaps in the hope of learning something (I’m an optimist) from them, here are the leading Everyone Freak Out, We’re All Gonna Die events of 2014:

 

Central American Refugees

For a time earlier this year, it seemed like all any Texas politician and tea party activist wanted to talk about was the Invasion of the Kiddos.

The phenomenon of children and teens traveling to the U.S. by themselves is not a new one. Immigration authorities and child welfare advocates have been grappling with the extremely delicate problem of what to do with unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border for many years. And the numbers of children from Central America began ticking upward, and then surging, several years ago. However, anti-immigrant groups and Texas politicians hardly took notice until this year when the system became overwhelmed by record numbers of children and families fleeing violence, insecurity and poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

And then the reaction was furious. Anti-immigrant activists created elaborate alternative theories about the children. They weren’t actually kids. They weren’t fleeing violence. They were coming to the U.S. because of “the magnets” of free stuff and the promise of one day being able to vote for Malia Obama. Best not to even call them children, or refugees. The kids had leprosy, they had polio, they had Ebola.

Breitbart Texas deployed its crack team to South Texas to snap photos of scenes like “ANIMALS FEAST ON DEAD MIGRANT” and whip its audience into a frenzy with the usual Breitbart-ian admixture of shrieking headlines, seething rage and nonexistent editing.

State Rep.-elect Tony Tinderholt toyed with the idea of invading Mexico. State Rep. David Simpson was nearly pilloried for suggesting a modicum of compassion. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst accused Mexico of ushering the kids into the U.S. Rick Perry and Sean Hannity rushed to the border to pose on armored gunboats. For a mere $86 million, Perry deployed the National Guard and state police to the border for, as he explained to Fox, “the visual.” Politicians, including Democratic border Cnongressman Henry Cuellar, fell all over each other to see who could stand up to these underage alien invaders the most aggressively.

And then, in early fall, interest just flickered out. Oh, the children and families were still coming—albeit in smaller numbers—and the feds were busy in South Texas building giant no-bid for-profit “family detention centers,” and reports continued of deported youth being murdered back in their home countries, but then it just suddenly—around the time of an election, no less—seemed as if the fire had gone out on the issue.

Where are they now?

Reports suggest that many children and their parents have been deported to their deaths. Others are forced through for-profit prisons where attorneys and activists have reported detainees are poorly treated, sometimes sexually assaulted, and denied due process for their asylum claims. Recent data also indicates an uptick again in the numbers of people turning themselves in at the border, suggesting that the U.S. government’s response to the influx may not be enough to overcome the factors driving people out of Central America.

 

ISIS at the Border

The borderlands, it seemed, had all the fun this year. When it wasn’t the Central Americans, it was the Islamic State expanding the borders of the caliphate to Rio Grande City. As an actual crisis gripped the Middle East, with the fate of entire nation-states and the lives of millions in the balance, with the Islamic State actually (sometimes literally) threatening the borders of American allies, GOP leaders in Texas worried that the Islamic terror group was coming to Texas do the jihad. Evidence: “Quran books.” And an apparent Adidas soccer jersey that the crack team at Breitbart believed was a Muslim prayer rug. And California Congressman Duncan Hunter’s beautiful mind.

Meanwhile, not a single credible authority could be found that found such a theory plausible.

In late October, Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick warned in a TV ad that “ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans.”

(Ah, but he just said “threaten,” and surely somewhere some jihadi with a Twitter account had threatened to come blow America up. Could be, could be.)

The “ISIS at the border” crisis seems to have cooled considerably, probably because it was so wildly unsupported that it was bound to die off once the politicians and propagandists wrapped up election season. Still, the ISIS claims, coupled with the hysteria over the Central Americans, certainly helped justify the ongoing border “surge.”

Where are they now?

Still in Syria, still in Iraq.


Ebola

For a little minute there, it seemed like we were all going to die. But in the end, just one person in Texas did: Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who contracted Ebola in Liberia, was diagnosed on Sept. 30 in Dallas and died in a Dallas hospital on October 8. Two of the nurses who treated Duncan were treated and released, disease-free, within weeks. Texas was declared Ebola-free on Nov. 7.

During that month and change, Ted Cruz proposed banning travel from affected West African nations, despite widespread concern from the medical community that such a draconian measure would make the disease outbreak worse. Rick Perry ordered mandatory quarantines for returning aid workers, although the risks of Ebola spreading from doctors and nurses is “near zero” and needlessly isolating people tends to discourage them from rendering aid. Schools closed. Parents kept their kids inside. Breitbart accused Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who showed considerable compassion toward the Duncan family, of being a “NAIVE LIBERAL” and doggedly spread the lie that Ebola is an airborne disease.

To recap: We were all going to die, then we didn’t. Huh, guess we got lucky.

Where are they now?

In West Africa, 7,800 have died and the disease has “roared back” after recent gains.

Beaumont's West Brook High School Bruins football team
Patrick Michels
Beaumont’s West Brook High School Bruins wait to take the field on homecoming night 2014.

In a few weeks, we’ll be inundated with news and speculation on statewide education policy—funding, charters, vouchers, universal pre-K and more—once the Legislature gavels back in. But a legislative off-year like 2014 was a good reminder that, for all the noisy debate at the Capitol, most education stories play out on the local level. Whether it’s school choice or standardized tests, what happens in Austin affects kids differently if they’re in Highland Park, Beaumont or El Paso.

The state takes over Beaumont ISD

My October story for the Observer on “the most dysfunctional school district in Texas” ends with a rare state takeover at Beaumont ISD, and the question of whether this dramatic shakeup can undo years of corruption and distrust. If I could venture a future spoiler: No, it probably won’t. But whatever good can come from state-appointed superintendent Vernon Butler’s work, backed by the state-appointed managers who’ll run Beaumont’s schools for the next couple years—it’ll depend a lot on who’s left in charge when they go. This year was about cleaning house—raids, arrests and federal indictments tied to the old administration—but 2015 will be about how the district moves on.

Local cheating scandals

There were no widespread cheating scandals on par with, say, El Paso or Atlanta, in 2014. (Former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, who’d been serving a federal prison sentence for his role in the El Paso scheme, was released this November.) But a handful of teachers were caught around the state cheating on a smaller scale this year. Whether the cheating is classroom-, campus-, or district-wide, the motivations are basically the same. These stories are a reminder of how easily we can be manipulated into seeing any school or teacher as good or bad, if a few test scores are all we consider.

In Houston and Dallas school districts, scandals surfaced where schools’ performance improved too quickly to believe. Houston ISD began reassigning teachers at Houston’s Jefferson and Atherton elementary schools in late 2013 over concerns about cheating. In spring 2014, HISD’s investigations found at least three teachers at Atherton and five at Jefferson had helped students cheat. The Houston Chronicle noted other anomalies in the schools’ testing stats, including that, for instance, “100 percent of English-speaking third-graders at Jefferson passed state exams in reading and math in 2013, ranking the northside school far ahead of others in the district.” This fall, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office said it would help the district investigate further.

Dallas’ Umphrey Lee Elementary saw its rating from the state plummet this year after the district found at least seven teachers had been, as The Dallas Morning News put it, “feeding students answers on most of the” state tests.

Home rule in Dallas ISD

When The Dallas Morning News broke the story in March that a few Dallas civic leaders, backed by Houston billionaire John Arnold and some anonymous donors, were out to make Dallas ISD the state’s first home-rule charter district, it was a shocking piece of news. It was a confusing piece of news, too—most folks had no reason to know Texas even had a home-rule charter law, since no district had ever used it before. But the implications of the little-known law were serious—a revised teacher tenure system, even mayoral control of the schools, all possible within a few months. As Mayor Mike Rawlings’ then-spokesman—and current City Council candidate—Sam Merten explained the mood back then: “I think this is gonna be the story of the year for our city.”

The home-rule backers mounted a successful petition drive, but didn’t manage to get a home-rule charter drafted in time for November’s election—a crucial deadline because, by law, a successful home-rule election requires high turnout. Whether Dallas opts for home rule, and what that might look like, should be decided in 2015.

School reform money in local races

This is a trend that’s sure to continue in 2015 and beyond, but began small in 2014. Out-of-state school reform advocates like Democrats for Education Reform—backed by New York hedge fund managers and Obama administration veterans—and Teach for America’s Leadership for Education Equity backed candidates up and down the ticket in this year’s elections, from the State Board of Education and the state House on down to local school board races. The Texans for Lawsuit Reform’s new education spinoff, Texans for Education Reform, began its major spending on campaigns this year as well, backed by some of the state’s most generous political donors.

Austin school board candidate David “D” Thompson became a poster child for the phenomenon this fall, in a campaign that ended with a narrow runoff defeat. Along the way, the former KIPP Austin Collegiate charter school teacher received contributions from national school reform advocates including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Austin’s same-sex schools

Buzzfeed‘s recent piece on Austin ISD’s experiment with same-sex schools offered a great inside look at the first semester at the Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, two troubled district schools that reopened this year to pilot a new approach. Built on a foundation of outdated pseudoscience and gender stereotypes, helped along with local political will and a try-anything-once approach to experimenting with failing schools, the schools are running now on earnestly enthusiastic staffs. At the same time, the ACLU has sued the district, noting the shaky research base supporting same-sex schooling and suggesting that you don’t need to be a charter school to make guinea pigs of poor, Latino and black students.

Schools launch Mexican American studies courses

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education punted on its promise of new Mexican American Studies textbooks until at least next year. But as the San Antonio Express-News noted in July, some schools around the state are marching ahead with their own plans for Mexican American Studies classes. The paper counted programs planned or in place in Austin, San Antonio, and the Rio Grande Valley. Houston author Tony Diaz, who’s been active in the textbook campaign with the state board, told the Express-News the trend is nothing short of “a Chicano renaissance.”

Banned books in Highland Park

September’s Banned Books Week kicked off with news that Highland Park ISD had pulled seven books from classroom use in response to complaints from parents about obscene content. The district’s move became national news, loaded with complaints about parents in the wealthy Dallas bubble hoping to keep their kids sheltered from titles like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. A new group of parents formed to advocate for the books’ continued use, lamenting the national scorn that’d been heaped upon the district, and the superintendent reversed his decision, un-banning the books, within weeks.

But as the Texas Tribune reported in November, some in Highland Park are still working to remove books they find objectionable. The looming fights there, and in districts across Texas about to purchase books from the state’s new list of social studies texts, could resemble locally produced productions of the State Board of Education’s better-known culture war debates.

Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on "Inside Texas Politics"
WFAA
Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on WFAA's "Inside Texas Politics." Villalba says Krause helped him draft a proposed constitutional amendment promoting religious freedom.

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) remains adamant that a proposed constitutional amendment he filed earlier this month isn’t intended to undermine local ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

But Villalba also continues to tout the fact that he received input in drafting the amendment from a lawmaker known for his anti-LGBT views and from the Liberty Institute, which is actively fighting a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano.

Villalba has characterized his HJR 55 as a tamer version of SJR 10, a similar religious freedom amendment introduced in the Senate by Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels).

And Villalba has objected to a “license to discriminate” label that was attached to his amendment in an Observer headline and in a fundraising appeal from Progress Texas, denying accusations that the measure is designed to undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions.

“Not true at all,” Villalba told Breitbart Texas for an article published Sunday. “That was not our intention at all. … I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.”

Villalba told Breitbart he supports the authority of local governments to pass LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and said HJR 55 is instead designed to protect things like nativity scenes on government property.

But LGBT advocates continue to question Villalba’s motives—particularly since he unveiled HJR 55 on Facebook by posting an Empower Texans article slamming the Plano ordinance shortly after it passed. “We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square,” Villalba wrote. “Tomorrow, we fight back.”

On Monday morning, Villalba took to Facebook again to post the Breitbart article, writing above it: “Many of you have asked about what HJR 55 actually does. In essence, it protects the free exercise of religion in Texas. Here is an article that spells it out nicely. Special thanks to Matthew Krause and Liberty Institute for their help and insight in putting this together.”

Rep. Krause (R-Arlington) received the lowest score of any lawmaker on LGBT issues from Equality Texas following the 2013 session.

In response to a comment below his Facebook post Monday from this reporter, Villalba sent a chat message referencing Campbell’s resolution.

“Perhaps I should drop HJR 55 and let the alternative version pass,” Villalba wrote. “Is that what you would prefer?”

Asked whether he believes Campbell’s resolution, which has been defeated in three consecutive sessions, would pass in 2015, Villalba referenced an expected shift to the right in the Senate next year thanks to November election results.

“Have you not seen what just happened in the Senate?” Villalba wrote. “It [SJR 10] would easily pass.”

Asked whether he strategically introduced HJR 55 as a more moderate alternative to SJR 10, Villalba said: “My goal is to pass the best bill that advances the cause of religious liberty.”

One commenter pointed out below Villalba’s post that he recently hired a new district director, Christine Mojezati, who previously worked for the American Family Association, which has been identified as an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Dude. I’m a conservative Republican. What did you expect, the ACLU?” Villalba told the Observer when asked about hiring Mojezati. “I hired her because she is qualified and an excellent ambassador for the district. She worked for the AFA for like 30 minutes as an intern in the summer. She’s 24 and barely out of college. She spent the last three years working on campaigns. Including [Republican Reps.] Linda Koop and Dan Branch.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Mojezati worked as a field representative for the AFA in Denver from October to November of this year. In addition to Branch and Koop, she has worked for Republican Attorney General-elect Ken Paxton and state Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano).

In a previous interview, Villalba told the Observer he opposes anti-gay discrimination and doesn’t believe being gay is a choice. However, he declined to endorse legislation to ban anti-LGBT discrimination statewide. Asked Monday whether he supports same-sex marriage, Villalba wrote: “I defer to my district on a question of that nature. I believe that marriage is a creature of the state. And therefore, the people of the state should should make that decision.”

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said Monday the organization opposes HJR 55, in part because Texas already has a state statute that provides strong protections for religious freedom.

“Texas led the nation with the passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1999, which is a model policy and works well,” Williams said. “Ill-considered attempts to weaken the delicate balance of that policy, however well intended, are not in the best interest of Texas or Texans.”

March for non-discrimination ordinance in San Antonio
Forrest Wilder
March outside San Antonio City Council meeting in favor of updating a non-discrimination ordinance to include LGBT people.

Critics say the proposed constitutional amendments could invite a flood of expensive lawsuits from those who claim various laws are impinging upon their religious freedom.

Former Rep. Scott Hochberg (D-Houston), who authored the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, told the Observer he believes Villalba’s amendment would have the same impact as Campbell’s “as far as opening up all civil rights laws for litigation over ‘compelling interest’ and ‘least restrictive means.'”

In addition to civil rights laws, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act lists exemptions for zoning, land use planning, traffic management, urban nuisance and historic preservation. But the proposed constitutional amendments do not.

Villalba and Campbell’s bills “may be designed to trump local nondiscrimination protections, and that’s a serious problem, but the bigger problem for government is the fact that it then becomes prohibitively expensive to enforce things like food safety law,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal. “What if somebody has a religious belief that requires them to make large bonfires in the backyard as part of a religious tradition, and you have dry, dangerous fire conditions? There are basic safety regulations. … This is far-right grandstanding, but it’s grandstanding with very serious potential implications for government.”

A panhandler in Houston
Alex Proimos/flickr/CreativeCommons
A panhandler at the intersection of Richmond and Chimney Rock in Houston.

When Houston commuters think of I-45, many thoughts and emotions come to mind. Among those that can be referenced in a family-friendly publication are the feelings of rage and resignation when we are buried in traffic jams; the sensations of stupor or sublimity as we blur past strip malls and strip clubs; and the mindless humming inspired by old songs and the mindful attention inspired by a new one.

But rarely is I-45 a stage for moral quandaries—at least until you exit, stop at the first intersection, and confront an ethical impasse at the underpass. There, at the red light, you face a panhandler.

There is no better verb than “face,” if only because that is also the noun that captures what’s at stake. Many of us do our very best to evade these face-offs. There are drivers who, coming to a stop next to the panhandler, will nudge their cars forward. Others will try to edge their way into the far lane. Yet other drivers will run the light, running the risk of an accident in order—or so I suspect—to avoid spending the several seconds in the uncomfortable company of the needy.

When those strategies fail, there are yet others. Some of us stare furiously at our smart phones, while others take a newfound interest in odometer readings. Many of us will gaze straight ahead, pretending to be lost in thought, all the while a prisoner of just one: Why is this light taking so long to turn?

Some of us will look at the panhandler, but in the way we might look at faces in a police line-up or X-rays of our children’s teeth. We try to assess the situation, comparing the pleas on their signs with the clothing on their bodies or the expressions on their faces. Are those Ray-Bans he’s wearing? If he’s really homeless, why is he so clean-shaven? Or, Since he is homeless, shouldn’t he make himself more presentable? If she’s feeding three kids, why is she overweight? No wonder he’s begging; he clearly spent all his money on tattoos.

How do I know all these tactics, ruses and excuses? It’s simple: I’ve tried them all. While I send out yearly checks to a dozen charities, I cannot without effort fork over to a beggar the same couple of bucks that I thoughtlessly spend on an espresso. Why?

For the Jewish thinker Emmanuel Lévinas, our moral understanding is founded on “the face to face.” Truly seeing another person’s face is “the most basic mode of responsibility.” In the beginning, for Levinas, was not the Word, but the wordless encounter between two humans dependent upon one another not just for survival, but for recognition.

But perhaps recognition asks too much of us. In The Brothers Karamazov, one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s characters declares that while we might love our neighbor abstractly, we rarely do so up close. This is the reason, he concludes, that beggars “should never show themselves in the street.”

This is especially the case on the feeder roads of I-45. Unlike downtown’s sidewalks and parks, the concrete banks and macadam tributaries of I-45 are the last place one expects to face a face. Encountering a human who isn’t enveloped in a shell of steel and glass shell in these parts is always a bit of a shock.

And yet there she is, a human being, her head abuzz with the torrent of traffic as she slowly works the line of cars. Let’s face it: She wants to be seen. Will I allow myself to see her? Or will I allow the inevitable bottleneck of questions and rationalizations to come between us? Will she spend my buck on drugs or booze, or drive off in Mercedes once her  shift is over?

But where is my common sense? Must we be sociologists to know that most panhandlers spend their money on food? Do I need to be an economist to know that giving cash to the poor is the most efficient way to help them? Do I have to consult a psychologist to grasp how difficult it is to ask strangers for help in the shadow of an underpass?

The next time we face another at an intersection, we should take the opportunity to face ourselves as well.

Legislators Seek to Overturn Anti-Gay Birth Certificate Law

LGBT group says the 1997 restriction hurts kids, calling it ‘the lowest form of politics’.
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark
Andy Miller (left) and Brian Stephens with their son, Clark

 

The day Andy Miller and Brian Stephens jointly adopted their son Clark in 2007 was among the happiest of their lives.

But the couple’s elation turned to disappointment when they walked out of the courtroom and down a hall to the Travis County Clerk’s Office.

That’s when Miller and Stephens realized they faced a difficult choice, because they couldn’t include both of their names on Clark’s supplemental birth certificate.

“As he got older, it became less about us and it became more about him,” Miller said this week of Clark, now 7. “This is his document that he’ll carry with him the rest of his life, and it very clearly only lists half of his family on it, and that’s when we kind of became angry and said the state is treating our son differently because of who his parents are, not because of anything he has done or hasn’t done. This needs to change because of our kids. The state is basically targeting them for unequal treatment.”

The Texas Legislature added a provision to the Health & Safety Code in 1997 requiring supplemental birth certificates issued to adoptive parents to contain the name of one female, the mother, and one male, the father.

According to the legislation’s author, former state Rep. Will Hartnett (R-Dallas), it was part of a renewed commitment to “conservative values.” But Hartnett acknowledged last year that the law should be revisited if it’s negatively impacting children.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) introduced a bill for the fourth consecutive session that would remove gender requirements for adoptive parents on supplemental birth certificates. And for the first time, a companion to Anchia’s bill was introduced in the Senate by Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston).

Many judges in Texas routinely grant joint adoptions to same-sex couples, so the legislation wouldn’t create new parental rights. But not having accurate birth certificates causes problems when it comes to enrolling children in school, adding them to insurance policies, admitting them for medical care and obtaining passports.

Anchia, whose bill has never made it out of committee, said if it fails to do so in 2015, he plans to force a floor vote by offering it as an amendment, and he’s confident it will pass.

“I think if you asked every member of the Legislature, they would say they care about orphaned children, and if we can get them to understand that this bill is about children and not about who their parents are, then that should carry the day,” Anchia told the Observer this week. “There’s no doubt that this policy has cruel effects.”

According to Equality Texas, the birth certificate restriction is among the inequities facing the LGBT community that wouldn’t be solved by legalization of same-sex marriage—since it involves the relationship between a parent and a child, not between parents.

About 9,200 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according to Census estimates, but it’s unclear how many are adoptive parents.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, called the birth certificate restriction “the lowest form of politics possible—if you don’t like someone, attack their children.”

Williams said the legislation filed by Anchia and Garcia on Wednesday has bipartisan support in both chambers, but added that he didn’t know of any Republican legislators who’d be willing to publicly endorse the bills at this stage.

Two years ago, Anchia’s bill faced opposition from the anti-LGBT group Texas Values. The group’s president, Jonathan Saenz, said in media interviews it would result in the words “mother” and “father” being removed from all birth certificates. PolitiFact rated Saenz’s claims “mostly false.”

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said Texas is one of only a handful of states that don’t issue accurate birth certificates to same-sex adoptive parents.

A few years ago, Upton challenged a similar law in Louisiana and won in district court before the decision was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Upton said he’s interested in challenging the Texas law, too—and plans to do so eventually if it isn’t overturned legislatively—but he added that “no one thinks the time is right in the 5th Circuit.”

Miller and Stephens said they remain focused on the Legislature, where they see an opportunity to change hearts and minds.

Two years ago, when Miller and Stephens lobbied on behalf of Anchia’s bill, they took Clark with them, and his gregariousness helped initiate conversations with even the most conservative legislators.

Earlier this year, Clark pulled a wagon into the attorney general’s office containing thousands of petitions calling for Attorney General Greg Abbott to stop defending Texas’ marriage bans.

Miller and Stephens, who also run a support group and website for gay dads, The Handsome Father, said they view their activism as a way of setting an example for their son.

“If he doesn’t like something and feels that something needs to change, we want him to see that he can be a part of that change,” Miller said.