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The Whole Star

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”

Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.

Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.

“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.

On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum

Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.

Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.

Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”

“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”

The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”

Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.

Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.

In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.

“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”

Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.

Najmus Saqib Hassan
Kelsey Jukam
Najmus Saqib Hassan listens during a social activism session at the First United Methodist Church.

The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.

Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).

“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.

Don Huffines
Sen. Don Huffines

Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican from Dallas, has filed a bill that would prohibit cities from enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances.

Huffines’ Senate Bill 343, introduced Friday, is a sweeping proposal that would bar local governments from implementing ordinances that are more stringent than state law on the same subject, unless otherwise authorized by statute.

Since Texas law doesn’t prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, cities couldn’t do so, either.

SB 343 would amend the Local Government Code as follows:

Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 8.46.33 PM


Huffines didn’t immediately respond to a message left with his office.

Although in line with some of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent statements, Huffines’ proposal seems extraordinarily broad and would block cities from implementing an array of local laws.

Four House Republicans from Plano reportedly plan a more narrow bill targeting local nondiscrimination ordinances, but it hasn’t been introduced yet. In addition, proposed constitutional amendments creating broad religious exemptions to nondiscrimination ordinances have been introduced in both chambers.

Huffines, a tea partier, defeated state Sen. John Carona in last year’s Republican primary. Carona was among the first Republican Texas legislators in history to publicly express support for gay rights.

Shortly after being elected, Huffines slammed the Boy Scouts’ decision to lift its ban on gay youth.

“I think it was a big mistake what the BSA did,” Huffines said. “They can’t be trusted not to open the door for more infiltration from the gay agenda. Eventually we’ll have gay Scouts and gay Scoutmasters and gay troops. They’ll keep coming until their mission is fulfilled.”

If passed, Huffines’ bill would undo local LGBT protections covering 7.5 million Texans. Cities with LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances include Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Plano and San Antonio.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said since 1909, Texas has granted cities with over 5,000 people broad discretion to make local decisions under the home-rule provision in the state Constitution.

“This bill would be a significant change to over a century of Texas tradition,” Williams said. “In addition to nondiscrimination ordinances, any other local ordinance that deals with a subject covered by state law could be affected, including: plastic bag use, tree ordinances, fracking bans, land-use restrictions, sight line and building height restrictions. The 31 percent of Texans who live in cities with some level of protections based, not only on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but on as race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, disability, religion, pregnancy, genetic information and student status deserve the ability to keep their locally adopted ordinances.”

Update: Huffines spokesman Matt Langston denied the bill is designed to undo city ordinances prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination.

“The bill aims to curtail local laws that hinder free enterprise and businesses or hamper liberty, counter to the free market, limited government policies enacted by the state,” Langston wrote in an email late Tuesday.

Asked if he could be more specific about the impetus for the bill, Langston wrote: “The focus of the bill is on free enterprise. Senator Huffines wants to put an end to ordinances, rules, and regulations that hinder the free market and directly undermine state policies designed to encourage the free market. Political subdivisions must not be allowed to undermine the free market, limited-government policies enacted by the duly elected officials of the state.”

Asked whether Huffines would consider adding language to the bill exempting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances, Langston wrote: “We are still meeting with stakeholders to make sure this bill accomplishes its free market goals.”

Meanwhile, Equality Texas issued an action alert urging people to contact their lawmakers and ask them to oppose Huffines’ bill.

“Local elected officials are in the best position to know the best solutions to local problems: from water to flooding, from air quality to traffic control,” the group wrote.

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Rudy Bush also panned Huffines’ proposal.

“So city councils that have voted to protect gay citizens from employment discrimination would see their laws trumped by a so-called small government Republican with a religious bent against the way they live their lives,” Bush wrote. “This is exactly where the focus of our legislators doesn’t need to be. We have real problems in this state. Turning back the clock on equal rights isn’t how anyone should be spending their time.”

Open Carry Texas rally
Kelsey Jukam
Members of Open Carry Texas rally at the Capitol Monday.

Dozens of gun rights activists gathered in front of the Capitol Monday morning to voice their support for a bill that would end Texas’ 144-year ban on the open carry of handguns.

If passed, House Bill 195 by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) would allow gun-owners to carry their handguns in plain sight, and would also eliminate the requirement that a person obtain a concealed handgun license.

Stickland told demonstrators at the event organized by Open Carry Texas that he was “sick and tired of begging for permission” to exercise his Second Amendment rights.

“Could you imagine some of the outrage by the liberals and other people in this state, if we applied the same principles to the First Amendment that they say are reasonable for the Second Amendment?” Stickland said. “Could you imagine what a liberal would say to you if you told them you have to take a test, pass a test, take a class and pay a fee to exercise your First Amendment rights? It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Texas is one of six states that doesn’t allow open carry of handguns, although it does permit the open carry of long-guns and antique handguns made before 1899. Thirty-one states currently allow open carry without a permit and 13 require a permit.

Open Carry members Colt and Kathryn Szczygiel moved to Texas from Connecticut last year, to flee the increasingly restrictive gun laws that state has passed since the Sandy Hook massacre. Colt Szczygiel said he was “extremely surprised” to learn that open carry of handguns was illegal in Texas, while it’s still legal in Connecticut. He says a common argument against open carry is that it will turn Texas into “the Wild West.”

“Look at us,” Kathryn Szczygiel said, pointing to her pregnant belly, “we’re not the Wild West.”

Jonathan Stickland
Kelsey Jukam
Rep. Jonathan Stickland authored a bill that would permit the open carry of handguns without a license.

Activists and speakers also argued that open carry is simply more comfortable and practical than concealed carry. After a bit of joking about nudists—”They need Open Carry more than anyone!”—Kathie Glass, a Libertarian candidate in Texas’ 2014 gubernatorial race, got down to business and talked to the audience about her handbag. Glass, who carried a can of hairspray in an empty gun holster, wondered how she was supposed to find her handgun if she had to keep it in her “U-Haul purse.”

“What if it’s not with me when I need it?” she asked.

Sterling Lands, a bishop with Family Life International Fellowship in Austin and the lone black face in the crowd of demonstrators, had a reason for supporting open carry that wasn’t articulated by the speakers. He believes that restrictive gun laws in Texas were created as a response to the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, and that current gun laws are discriminatory.

“The idea was to make certain that blacks were never able to rise up in any type of an armed revolt,” Lands said.

He supports HB 195, because he worries that current regulations discriminate against those who cannot afford the $140 concealed handgun license, and those who aren’t able to complete the written test required to obtain the license.

Stickland and Open Carry members support “constitutional carry,” asserting that most regulations on gun ownership are unconstitutional.

“The Second Amendment doesn’t come from a government institution, a bureaucracy or a politician,” Stickland said. “It comes from God almighty.”

According to CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, this hasn’t been an effective argument. He advised activists who planned to speak to their representatives after the rally not to “bring up the constitutional right thing” when speaking with representatives.

“If you say ‘constitution’ it will be like the wicked witch when you pour water on her: ‘I’m melting, melting,’” Grisham said. “You have to talk to them in terms that they understand.”

Grisham encouraged activists to stress that open carry can deter crime. “An armed society is a polite society,” he said, echoing a common NRA refrain.

Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.
Kelsey Jukam
Open carry activists were asked to wear empty gun holsters to the event.

Open carry supporters haven’t always followed their own advice. On Jan. 13, Open Carry Tarrant County stormed the office of Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D-Eagle Pass), calling Nevarez a “tyrant to the constitution.” The confrontation prompted lawmakers to pass a rule allowing the installation of panic buttons in Capitol offices.

Grisham was keen to prevent such an embarrassing display from occurring again. Attendees were asked on the “Carry to the Capitol” event page to look “as professional as possible,” and Grisham encouraged demonstrators to be respectful and polite, but “still firm.”

“Show them that we’re a very professional organization and we’re serious and committed to trying to get this legislation passed,” Grisham said.

Stickland is also committed to getting constitutional carry legislation passed, promising that he will offer an amendment on any gun-related bill, “no matter what my colleagues say.”

“We will force the vote,” Stickland said. “And if they have the gall to vote against this bill then we will replace them in the next primary.”

Plano Citizens United graphic
Via Plano Citizens United on Facebook
Despite an exemption for restrooms and similar facilities, opponents of Plano's equal rights ordinance have disseminated graphics like this one suggesting it would allow men to prey on children in women's restrooms.

The nation’s largest LGBT political advocacy group indicated this week it is unlikely to help defend a nondiscrimination ordinance in Plano due to exemptions affecting the transgender community.

The announcement from the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign could amount to a costly setback for supporters of the ordinance, as the organization recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a similar fight in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Opponents of the ordinance say they turned in petitions Tuesday with over 7,000 signatures—almost double the number needed to force the City Council to overturn the measure or place it on the ballot in May. Plano officials expect to complete the process of verifying the signatures by the end of this month.

Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy, told the Observer on Thursday that the organization hasn’t made a final decision about its role if the ordinance appears on the ballot. However, Oakley also made clear that HRC would be reluctant to join the fight due to exemptions including one that appears to bar people from using public restrooms according to their gender identity—a provision which she called “transphobic.”

“The language in Plano is very problematic and in terms of investing a lot of resources in an ordinance that has a lot of problems, it’s difficult to see why that’s necessarily the best use of resources,” Oakley said. “If we had been consulted in the drafting of this bill, we would have withdrawn our support, and given that, it’s hard to justify defending it as valid.”

After being approved in a 5-3 council vote on Dec. 8, the Plano ordinance immediately became the target of a repeal effort led by Texas Values, the Texas Pastor Council, the Liberty Institute and Prestonwood Baptist Church. Republican state lawmakers from Plano also say they’re drafting legislation to prohibit Texas cities from adopting LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances and nullify those already in place.

Trans Pride Initiative Nell Gaither has accused Equality Texas of selling out the transgender community.
Via Nell Gaither on Facebook
Trans Pride Initiative President Nell Gaither has posted graphics like this one accusing LGBT groups of selling out the transgender community.

But the Plano ordinance also quickly came under intense fire from transgender activists. Nell Gaither, president of Dallas-based Trans Pride Initiative, has posted blistering attacks on social media saying exemptions in the ordinance amount to bigotry and accusing other LGBT groups of signing off on them.

“This is not a Plano issue. This is a Texas issue, and more,” Gaither wrote recently. “If they get away with the lie that this is an LGBT equality policy it will set a dangerous precedent that will be very difficult to overcome for many, many years.”

This week, Trans Pride Initiative released an eight-page position paper criticizing exemptions in the ordinance related to not only restrooms, but also nonprofits and schools. The position paper says the exemptions run counter to federal laws and may ultimately promote violence and harassment against transgender people, suggesting it would be better to simply allow the ordinance to be repealed and start from scratch.

Representatives from Equality Texas and a Plano-based LGBT group, GALA North Texas, denied any role in drafting the ordinance. Plano spokesman Steve Stoler maintained this week that the ordinance was written exclusively by the city attorney’s office.

“We felt it was important to balance privacy interests and what best fit our city,” City Attorney Paige Mims said in a statement provided by Stoler. “We wanted to pave our own way, so we wrote our own ordinance. In balancing privacy interests with business interests, we felt the exemption was right for the City of Plano.”

Although adamant they didn’t sign off on the exemptions, both Equality Texas and GALA North Texas indicated they plan to defend the ordinance if it appears on the ballot.

“While the ordinance is not perfect, it is a fact that it includes protections from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations for LGBT residents and veterans in Plano that did not previously exist,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said in a statement to the Observer. “While criticisms expressed by leaders in the transgender community are valid, it is imperative that we work together to ensure that this ordinance is not repealed in the short term and is improved in the long term.”

Jeanne Rubin, a spokeswoman for GALA North Texas, called HRC’s likely decision to sit out the ballot fight disappointing.

“In politics, as much of a bummer as it is, everything is incremental, and I know that’s sort of a dirty word for our community,” said Rubin, who’s also an Equality Texas board member. “If this ordinance goes down, not only will Plano not touch this issue with a 10-foot pole, but no other suburban city out here will, and that doesn’t do L, G, B or T any good.”

Rubin and others said they believe the exemptions were included because officials hoped to head off attacks seen in other cities over transgender protections in public accommodations.

But if that’s the case, the strategy hasn’t worked. Despite the exemptions, opponents have repeatedly and publicly asserted that the ordinance would allow men to enter women’s restrooms and prey on children.

It’s a baseless, fear-mongering tactic, according to LGBT advocates, but it’s arguably still effective among conservative voters. And not only has the exemption failed to prevent such attacks, it has backfired, dividing the LGBT community along all-too-familiar lines over transgender inclusion and now threatening to undermine defense of the ordinance.

“I think the story coming out of Plano is about a city that really wanted to do the right thing, and I wish that this had unfolded differently, because I think that there were good intentions, but things fell apart,” HRC’s Oakley said. “I think incremental process is important, I think municipal work is incredibly important, but incremental doesn’t mean leaving part of the community behind. That’s not an acceptable version of incremental.”

Rodney Reed
AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

While a joyful crowd celebrated the inauguration of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, about 20 people gathered Tuesday near the Capitol in hopes of persuading the new governor to grant clemency to Rodney Reed, a black man sent to death row for the 1996 rape and murder of a white woman, Stacey Stites, near Bastrop.

Reed has maintained his innocence, and supporters have criticized the state for not taking a closer look at Stites’ fiancé, Jimmy Fennell, a Georgetown police officer who was later convicted of raping a woman while on duty.

At the protest yesterday, supporters chanted and held signs that read “Governor Abbott don’t kill an innocent man” and “Drop the Date! Test the DNA,” while cars driving by blew their horns in support.

Reed was convicted of killing Stites and sentenced to death in 1998. He is scheduled for execution on March 5. His family and supporters, including members of Stites’ family, are requesting that evidence in the case be tested for DNA. They’re also calling on Abbott to grant him clemency if the courts fail to order additional DNA testing.

“If they are so sure he is guilty, why not let them prove it and let us test the DNA?” said Cindy Beringer, an Austin volunteer with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. “Just to deny this extra testing and new technology to me seems illogical, but the town of Bastrop has really tried to cover up a lot.”

On Nov. 25, 2014, visiting Judge Doug Shaver denied Reed’s request to have various pieces of evidence related to the crime tested, including a leather belt used to strangle Stites. Supporters believe that Fennell’s DNA could be found, clearing Reed of wrongdoing. The sole physical evidence linking Reed to the murder was semen found inside Stites’ body. However, Reed has acknowledged having an affair with Stites. Shaver denied the request, stating that even if the evidence had been tested during Reed’s trial, the jury’s decision wouldn’t have changed.

The decision is on appeal at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, according to The Intercept.

Lily Hughes, the national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, said Reed has been frustrated in his search for justice in the courts.

“Over the years we have been trying to get a hearing from everybody from the district attorney in Bastrop County to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, all the way to the Supreme Court,” Hughes said.

Abbott has remained silent on the issue, and former Gov. Rick Perry has apparently never acknowledged the case.

Organizers say they will continue to fight for Reed even though his execution date is just six weeks away.

“We are trying to think of everything we can to save his life,” Beringer said.

Rick Perry
Patrick Michels

Rick Perry has been an elected official of the state of Texas for fully half of this magazine’s 60-year history, and governor for nearly a quarter of it. He is among the 20 longest-serving governors in American history. By virtue of lucky draws (a booming resource economy; uninspiring challengers) and skill (a genuine talent for retail politics), he has occupied the most bully of Texas pulpits longer than any of his 46 predecessors in the job. It’s an opportunity few men have been given, and fewer women. It’s fair to ask what he’s done with it.

He tried, and failed, to implement the Trans-Texas Corridor—a $150 billion boondoggle so unpopular that his own party’s platform opposed the project.

He tried, and failed, to mandate a vaccine for teenage girls—an intrusion so unpopular the state Legislature overrode his executive order.

He projected regressive attitudes regarding gay rights, creationism and capital punishment, on which latter count he has overseen the execution of 278 Texas inmates since taking office on December 21, 2000.

Perry’s most lasting legacy is probably his denial of Medicaid expansion, by which he chose to exchange the health and even the lives of Texans for cheap partisan posturing.

What has Rick Perry done for Texas? He has postured. He has played to his base, shooting coyotes and laughing off dual indictments for abuse of power, but he has not led it.

And even on the way out the door, with his so-called Texas miracle teetering on the edge of crashing oil prices, he dismisses factuality, telling The Washington Post in December that “We don’t grapple with” income inequality in Texas. Actually, Texas ranks among the top five states in terms of income inequality. But note that Perry didn’t say Texas doesn’t have an inequality problem. Just that he has no interest in doing anything about it.   

If it weren’t for all that still-remarkable hair, the temptation would be strong to dismiss Perry’s long tenure as a large, empty hat.

As Greg Abbott assumes office today, Perry’s three-decade run as an employee of the state government will come to an end and he will, to judge by appearances, turn his full attention to his quest to become an employee of the federal government.

What an opportunity for Texas. —The Editors

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 in January
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.”

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.”