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The Whole Star

Introducing Myself

Joe Cutbirth

Well, Texas, I’m home.

There’s a story about Bob Bullock of Hillsboro who fought in the Korean War and came back to be one of the great public servants in state history. Tony Proffitt, Bullock’s legendary press secretary, once told me that when Bullock got home he literally got down, kissed the ground and promised he’d never leave Texas again.

I don’t know how apocryphal that is because Proffitt was known to spin a yarn, and I’m not on all fours yet—but almost. Texans appreciate manners so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Joe Cutbirth, the Observer’s new editor.

I left Austin 15 years ago after a good run in the capital press corps where some work I did around ethics helped close the career of a Democratic House Speaker. I also got some keen recognition for reporting on a Republican U.S. senator who had some ethical issues of her own but who survived a grand jury indictment.

After that I took time to reflect on things, which I highly recommend particularly if the scenery is nice. Teaching at Columbia University while working on a graduate degree in New York City is a great gig if you can get it. I got it, and I loved it, but it never was my terminal plan.

You see, the only job I ever wanted so bad I’d do anything legal to get it was to be a political reporter here in Austin. Before I went north I did that—first for a small bureau that the Lubbock and Amarillo papers shared in the late 80s and then for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram while Bill Clements and Ann Richards were governor.

In those days, large news organizations had big staffs that lived and worked full-time in Austin. We had six in our bureau, including Kaye Northcott and Molly Ivins, who made their names as co-editors at the Observer.

Molly once wrote: “I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth. I believe that the people is (sic) not dumb. Ignorant, bigoted and mean-minded maybe, but not stupid. I just think it helps, anything and everything, if the people know. Know what the hell is going on. What they do about it once they know is not my problem.”

Kaye and Molly were mentors as well as friends. So, it seems I’ve come full circle, and it feels just great.

I’m not here to be the next Molly Ivins or the next Billy Brammer or the next Joe Holley or any other great editor who’s sat in this chair. I’m the first Joe Cutbirth and you can bet I’ll make a few mistakes, but one of them won’t be shying away from the truth. Truth matters.

The idea that truth can be found at some magic midpoint between two extremes if a reporter just gives them the same number of words or minutes and feigns indifference has just about destroyed American journalism. It’s what Jay Rosen has dubbed “the view from nowhere,” and you won’t get that on my watch.

I also think journalism works best as a public medium, not a mass medium. Journalism veered off course when it stopped helping people talk to each other and started talking at them. I took this job because I believe there is a progressive conversation already underway in Texas. The Observer that I edit is going to help that conversation develop and connect the people who are having it.

Jim Carey, the great media scholar I studied under at Columbia, once asked if I knew what the First Amendment really was about. Like a lot of people I had assumed it was a list of six freedoms, and that James Madison couldn’t decide which one was most important so he just lumped them all together.

Carey told me it was bigger than that.

It’s actually about one thing, he said, and it is the thing Madison thought was the most important thing for our democracy: a public sphere. If this new country was going to work, Madison knew there had to be a blueprint that guaranteed everything would start with citizens talking to each other. He put it right there in the Bill of Rights and made it No. 1.

The First Amendment tells us we have the right to get together when we want (freedom to assemble). When we do, we can talk about what we need (freedom of speech). We can write down the conversation and pass it round for those who couldn’t make the meeting (freedom of the press). Then, when everyone has participated and is fully informed we can go to our leaders and tell them what we want them to do (petition the government for redress of grievances). And no one can be barred from participating because of religion, which was the burning issue of the day (the establishment and free exercise clauses).

So, there it is. The First Amendment guaranteeing a free press for a specific reason: so people can connect and have the conversations they want to have in a marketplace of ideas. That is what the Observer is going to do on my watch.

Our first obligation will be to the truth. Our loyalty will be to our readers. We will work every day to give you the information you need to talk to each other and decide what you want our leaders to do to make this a better state.

That’s my pledge, and I’m sticking to it.

University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at rally in support of Texas DREAM Act
Kelsey Jukam
University of Texas-Pan American student Nahiely Garcia is consoled as she speaks at a rally in support of the Texas DREAM Act.

On the second day of the 84th Texas Legislature, an alliance of students, Hispanic advocates and business leaders assembled on the south steps of the Capitol to announce their commitment to the Texas DREAM Act.

The act, passed in 2001, allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been in the state at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

Incoming Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has vowed to repeal the act, and state Reps. Mark Keogh (R-The Woodlands) and Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) have filed bills—HB 360 and HB 209 respectively—to do just that.

Advocates claim that the repeal of the Texas DREAM Act may have disastrous consequences.

“If Texas goes the wrong way on this issue, these dreamers will be virtually denied an education, said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business

There are some 16,000 so-called dreamers—undocumented college students paying in-state tuition.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) said the DREAM Act enables hard-working young people to graduate from college, obtain jobs and contribute to their communities and the state’s economy.

“Instead of being on defense, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going on offense,” Anchia said. “I’ll be filing a concurrent resolution to confirm and support the Texas DREAM Act.”

Eduardo Maldonado, a 21-year-old University of North Texas psychology major, was one of the dozens of dreamers at the rally.

“I’ve been here 17 years, and I consider myself American and Texan. I grew up here. This is who I am,” Maldonado told the Observer. “I deserve the chance to attend college.”

The rally came a day after another group of national and state Hispanic advocacy organizations, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and Hispanics Organized for Political Education (Texas HOPE), held a gathering on the south steps of the Capitol.

“The DREAM Act is an amazing example of what’s right about Texas Education,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. “It is morally criminal to take it away.”

 

State Rep. Matt Shaheen
City of Plano
State Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) speaks against the city's equal rights ordinance at a Dec. 8 City Council meeting.

Four Republican lawmakers from the Plano area plan to introduce legislation that would bar cities and counties from adopting ordinances prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, the Observer has learned. The proposed legislation also threatens to nullify existing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances in cities that are home to roughly 7.5 million Texans—or more than one-quarter of the state’s population.

The bill comes in response to the Plano City Council’s passage last month of an equal rights ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

“There is legislation that’s being worked on,” Rep. Matt Shaheen (R-Plano) told a group of pastors who gathered in mid-December at Plano’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in response to passage of the city’s equal rights ordinance, according to an audio recording obtained by the Observer.

 

“Jeff Leach, who’s also a state representative—he and I represent the majority of Plano—he’s actually leading an effort to nullify these types of ordinances statewide,” Shaheen said. “There’s actually four state representatives that represent Plano—all of us will be joint authors of that legislation—but Rep. Leach will lead that effort.”

Shaheen declined the Observer’s request for an interview about the legislation, which had not yet been filed as the session got under way Tuesday. Shaheen, Leach and the other two GOP Plano lawmakers—Reps. Pat Fallon and Jodie Laubenberg—wrote a letter to the Plano City Council opposing the equal rights irdinance prior to its passage. Calls to the offices of Fallon, Leach and Laubenberg went unreturned.

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch discusses efforts to repeal Houston's equal rights ordinance last year.
Via Vimeo
Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch discusses efforts to repeal Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance last year.

Texas Pastor Council Executive Director David Welch, whose group is leading efforts to repeal equal rights ordinances in Plano and Houston, told the Observer the legislation would prohibit political subdivisions of the state from adding classes to nondiscrimination ordinances that aren’t protected under Texas or federal law—neither of which covers LGBT people.

“It should be a uniform standard statewide, and cities can’t just arbitrarily create new classes that criminalize a whole segment of the majority of the population,” Welch said. “It’s just self-evident that they’re going to try to do it city by city. We’re dealing with a broad public policy that creates criminal punishments. That’s a pretty serious issue, and when it’s based on a special agenda by a small, tiny fragment of the population … that’s a legitimate need and reason for the state Legislature to act.”

Welch’s group is facing a Jan. 20 deadline to gather enough signatures to place a repeal of Plano’s equal rights ordinance on the May ballot. On the same day, a trial is set to begin in the lawsuit aimed at repealing Houston’s equal rights ordinance.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers in both the House and Senate have introduced proposed constitutional amendments—branded by progressives as “license to discriminate” measures—that would carve out broad religious exemptions to local anti-bias laws.

But the Plano Republicans’ bill would need only simple majorities in both chambers, instead of two-thirds for a constitutional amendment. And the bill is effectively a nuclear option that could abruptly end fights in Houston and Plano. Other cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances at risk of being nullified include Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio. In some cases, the laws are decades old.

“Nobody supports discrimination and nobody supports discriminating against anybody in the GLBT community,” Welch told the Observer. “What we’re against is laws that are passed that essentially give them privileged-class status and threaten with criminal penalties business owners and individuals and ultimately churches and pastors for practicing historic beliefs that have been part of this country since it’s founding, and that’s something that’s a direct threat against our First Amendment, and that’s what this is all about.”

LGBT advocates counter that Texas already provides strong protections for religious freedom in both the Texas Constitution and in a 1999 statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. According to a 2013 Equality Texas poll, more than 75 percent of Texans support bans on employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Currently, the only state with a law prohibiting cities from enacting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances is Tennessee. The Tennessee law, passed in 2011, prompted a lawsuit from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, but a state appeals court recently dismissed the case, saying plaintiffs didn’t have standing because they couldn’t show harm.

Shannon Minter
Shannon Minter

Shannon Minter, a Texas native who serves as legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said he now plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging the Tennessee ban.

Lawmakers in several other states have introduced proposals to ban local nondiscrimination ordinances, but none has passed. Minter said in the last few years anti-LGBT lawmakers have shifted to a religious freedom approach to counter local nondiscrimination ordinances because the strategy is more appealing politically.

“Because the Tennessee-style bill is so punitive toward all localities, I think that it’s so blatantly taking democratic power away from local governments that legislators just don’t have the stomach to do it,” Minter said.

The lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s law was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans, which struck down a Colorado law banning local protections based on sexual orientation. Authors of the Tennessee bill  attempted to to get around Romer v. Evans by enacting a general prohibition on classes that aren’t covered under state law, rather than specifically targeting LGBT protections. However, Minter believes the law is still unconstitutional.

“Legislatures are not permitted to enact laws that are designed to disadvantage a particular group, and it’s as clear as it could possibly be that the purpose of these laws is to prevent gay and transgender people from gaining local anti-discrimination protections,” he said.

Tennessee lawmakers introduced the legislation in response to a nondiscrimination ordinance in one city, Nashville, and Minter said the Texas proposals broader impact would also make it more vulnerable to legal challenges.

Minter said the Tennessee bill passed in part because businesses in the state were too late in voicing their opposition.

“Hopefully this time in Texas the response will be more immediate, and I hope the legislators listen to the business community and do not do something that’s going to really hurt the Texas economy,” Minter said.

It’s been widely speculated that Plano passed its equal rights ordinance in response to Toyota’s decision to relocate a major facility to the city, after the company’s employees expressed concern about the lack of LGBT protections in Texas. Plano-based Frito-Lay also sent a letter to the City Council in support of the equal rights ordinance.

But Welch dismissed the argument that efforts to undo local nondiscrimination ordinances will hurt business, calling it “a red herring.” He said one of the engines of Texas’ strong economy is its “family-friendly” climate.

“We’re not going to let corporations, Toyota or anybody else, come in and dictate to the community what our standards are going to be on a moral level and religious level,” Welch said. “Companies like Frito-Lay had better take thought of who their customers are before they start trying to step up and ramrod these things though, because we will remember.”

Swingset
Vivan Farinazzo

Back in 2011, when Texas legislators announced their plan to improve the child welfare system through privatization, advocates expressed alarm. In 2013, after partial implementation of the plan, an even larger chorus begged lawmakers to slow the rollout until it became clear whether it would work. Now, as the Texas legislature convenes again, a new voice is calling for a halt: the House and Human Services Committee.

Last week, the key legislative committee suggested that the state temporarily stop the rollout of controversial reforms to the child welfare system. Opponents have said the partial privatization of the state system responsible for thousands of foster children—known as “foster care redesign”—is a hasty and potentially detrimental overhaul.

In its interim report, the Committee recommending that the Department of Family and Protective Services stop contracting with any new private companies to manage the sprawling foster care system. The committee said lawmakers and child welfare experts need more time to study how effective foster care reforms have been so far. That’s exactly what stakeholders told the Observer last year, when we reported on potential problems with redesign that have since come to pass.

Foster care redesign is an effort by the Department of Family and Protectives Services, which oversees administration and regulation of the foster care system, to keep children who are removed from their families due to abuse and neglect closer to their home communities.

The “halt order” comes amid concern from critics about the cost of reform and safety of foster children in the new system.

The original 2011 legislation put into the motion the state’s foray into foster care reform, with one caveat: the redesign must cost the same to implement as the old system. Since then only two lead companies have been tapped to take over portions of the system.

But last time we checked, the first two contractors were considerably over budget, and more money will be needed to provide new services. The first company, the for-profit Providence Services Corporation, pulled out of their contract just 11 months into the rollout, citing cost as one of their reasons.

After a rash of child deaths in the system in 2013, child welfare advocates were wary reform efforts wouldn’t keep kids safe. And last year, the redesign was called a “risky endeavor” by the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative committee that monitors and has the authority to shut down government agencies.

The reform set up goes like this: the Department contracts some administrative and regulatory duties to the different private lead companies. Those contractors, in turn, manage willing private child-placing agencies within their allotted region of the state, or “catchment area.” Before reform began agencies contracted individually with the state to manage and recruit foster families, or run group homes or intensive treatment centers for children who wouldn’t do well in a family setting.

Since Providence pulled out, only one company currently contracts with the state to provide services under the redesign model. The not-for-profit Our Community Our Kids, a branch of the 100-year-old not-for-profit ACH Child and Family Services, has managed a small seven-county region near Dallas since December 2013. The Commission’s recommendation does not affect Our Community Our Kids’ continuing contract and service in their area, it only asks that the Department keep from implementing reform in the other 247 counties in the state.

Commissioner John Specia, who heads the Department of Family and Protective Services, said he has no plans to abandon foster care redesign.

Department spokesman Patrick Crimmins sent the Observer this email response when asked what their plans were:

“Our comment: We understand the committee’s recommendation and we are proceeding very deliberately with [redesign], and continuing careful analysis of the data, and will not be expanding to any other catchment areas until authorized by the Legislature. We’re continuing work on a long-term implementation plan for redesign as recommended by the Sunset Advisory Commission, and hope to have that completed in a few months.” 

Ashley Harris, with children’s advocacy group Texans Care for Children, said the state should stop its privatization bid and called on the Legislature to give more direction on the issue.

“It’s been made pretty clear especially with this latest house interim report that the Department really needs to step back and get some things in order before they continue their privatization effort,” she said. “When it comes to kids in foster care maybe we should actually make well-informed decisions before moving forward with things that could be ultimately more detrimental, if not harmful to [kids’] stability and well-being.”

Peter Klein #JeSuisCharlie Charlie Hebdo

Editor’s note: As director of the Global Reporting Centre at the University of British Columbia, Peter Klein travels to Europe, Asia and Africa to report under-covered stories with impact on North America. The Observer asked him to reflect on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, on the alarming rise in ethnic tensions across Europe and how journalism education is fighting xenophobia by empowering marginalized European communities.

VANCOUVER—On the day of the horrific attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, people around the world tweeted the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie and held up a pen in solidarity with the journalists who were brutally murdered. I joined the crowd, putting the message pictured at right on the Global Reporting Centre’s Facebook page.

The next day, pundits weighed in, calling the hashtag callow and shallow and, even worse, racist. Charlie Hebdo published admittedly offensive images of the prophet Mohammed, which surely offended many people beyond just the fundamentalist Muslims who decided to shoot up the office and murder a dozen journalists and artists. The argument goes: Those who proclaimed “I am Charlie” were essentially saying “I am a bigot.”

On Friday, the same group of terrorists attacked a Jewish deli, taking hostages, murdering several people and eventually committing suicide by cop. They hijacked the narrative they themselves created and confounded the world community that had come together in solidarity of the satirical newspaper. So they don’t like journalists and they don’t like Jews?

Theodor Herzl, a secular Jewish Hungarian journalist in the late 1800s, experienced such deep hostility that he was convinced the only safe place for someone like him was a new Jewish homeland. He went on to found modern Zionism, which has been one of the sources of anger for French Muslims.

Last summer, a violent anti-Jewish riot broke out in a Paris suburb, with stores looted and two synagogues attacked. A week later a man in Toulouse firebombed a Jewish community center, in the same community where a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school were murdered a couple years before. Jewish headstones have been sprayed with swastikas, and a bizarre backward Nazi salute, known as the quenelle salute, seems to be gaining popularity.

At the same time, the Pegida movement—Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West—is gaining popularity. Last Monday, two days before the Charlie Hebdo attack, the group organized a record 18,000-person anti-Muslim march in the German city of Dresden—the same city that was leveled by the Allies the last time they exhibited Nazi sympathies. In France, tensions between the largely disenfranchised Muslim communities and the country have been increasing for years, which is precisely what Charlie Hebdo was trying to highlight. Since the attack last week, several mosques have been attacked with racist graffiti and small explosives.

So what’s going on here? Who should we hate? Who should get our sympathies? The Muslims, who are relegated to slums and derision, but in whose name the recent terrorists acts were carried out? The Jews, who have a long history of trouble in Europe?

This week, in a stroke of sad serendipity, we are launching Strangers at Home, which aims to empower the voices of marginalized Europeans who have been targets of the rising xenophobia throughout the continent.

There’s a quiet ethnic war going on in Europe that much of the world has ignored. In addition to the troubling and familiar trend of anti-Semitism and the sure-to-increase animosity towards Muslims, immigrant groups throughout the continent have come under attack. And Europe’s largest “minority” group, the Roma, is increasingly being targeted by both racist groups and politicians—with more than 10,000 so-called “gypsies” deported from France last year alone. The Global Reporting Centre is funding and empowering European storytellers to tell these stories.

Discussing these complex issues is the only way to stop the violence that seems to be simmering. So I stand by the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, because the magazine was for free expression. #JeSuisMusulman, because much of Europe seems to be against them these days. #JeSuisRoma, since much of Europe has been against them for centuries. #JeSuisJuif, because we’ve seen this all before.

#JeSuisEverythingButTheTerrorists.

Craig Estes
Craig Estes

During a panel on immigration at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy orientation in Austin, Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) was asked by the moderator, John Fund of National Review, what can be done about the ideological divide over immigration policy between traditional Republicans and the tea party.

Estes’ response: “We have to realize we’re not a bunch of white people, we’re not a party of skin color, we’re a party of ideas.”

During the last few years, some mainline and business-oriented Republicans have cautiously favored comprehensive immigration reform, fearing a demographic future where whites are a voting minority, while tea partiers have pushed for a nativist approach: simply deporting the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

What “ideas” did Estes have in mind? He went on to articulate a fairly standard tea party line on immigration and border security.

Estes warned of dangerous drug cartels, sex slaves and mules coming across the border.

“These people are vicious,” Estes said. “They have no place in our country, and the Texas Legislature will do everything we can to stop it.”

Estes said he would work to close the social safety net for undocumented immigrants and repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and who have been here at least three years to pay in-state tuition at community colleges and public universities.

JoAnn Fleming, chair of the Texas Legislature’s TEA Party Caucus Advisory Committee, spoke after Estes.

“The rule of law has been abandoned in the United States,” Fleming said. “If we continue we’ll end up with problems like we see in Europe.”

Estes nodded as Fleming spoke. “You can tell I get worked up about this,” he said.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Cecil Bell Jr.

On the eve of a federal appeals court hearing in a lawsuit challenging Texas’ same-sex marriage bans, a Republican legislator has introduced a bill that would prohibit county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) on Wednesday introduced House Bill 623, which he’s calling the “Texas Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act.”

HB 623 would amend the Texas Family Code to prohibit the use of  taxpayer funds for the “the licensing or support of same-sex marriage.” It would also bar government employees from recognizing, granting or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses. Any government employee who violates the provision would be barred from collecting “a salary, pension, or other employee benefit.”

HB 623 would also require Texas courts to dismiss challenges to the law and award attorneys’ fees to defendants. And it would grant Texas sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it comes to enforcing the law, “regardless of a contrary federal court ruling.”

“When I was elected, I made a promise to my constituents to fight to protect our traditional values and to stand strong in the defense of our constitutional rights as Texans and Americans,” Bell said in a release. “Texas is a sovereign state and our citizens have the right to define marriage. We as Texans voted in 2005 to define marriage as being solely between a man and a woman. In Texas marriage is sacred and traditional families are recognized as the fabric of our society.”

Bell said he was “disappointed, to say the least” when U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia struck down Texas’ marriage bans as unconstitutional last February.

“The 10th Amendment protects the right of Texas to pass Prop 2 [the 2005 marriage amendment],” Bell said in the release. “With the 84th Session around the corner, Texas will stand up and defend its constitutional right against federal overreach.”

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Friday in the state’s appeal of Garcia’s ruling.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, told the Observer that Bell’s assertion that Texas can ignore federal law is “preposterous.”

“To then turn around and threaten the pensions, benefits and jobs of state employees for just doing their jobs is abhorrent,” Williams said. “It’s buying a lawsuit for the state.”

With the session set to begin Jan. 13, Williams said it’s too early to predict whether Bell’s bill has a chance of passing.

“It’s certainly far outside the mainstream, but it’s something we’ll be watching very carefully,” Williams said. “The Legislature can always pass unconstitutional laws, and then it’s litigated in the courts. I’m guessing Cecil Bell wants to make sure Ken Paxton has plenty of work to do in his new job as attorney general.”

Equality Texas is predicting a defensive session for the LGBT community, due to backlash from the spread of marriage equality to 36 states and counting. HB 623 is at least the third piece of anti-LGBT legislation that’s been pre-filed for the session. The first two took the form of proposed constitutional amendments that would grant businesses a “license to discriminate” against same-sex couples.

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.”

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.”