LGBT Advocates, Anti-Gay Groups Find Common Ground on Marriage Bill

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, April 28.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on same-sex marriage on Tuesday, April 28.

In what would be an unprecedented move, some leading LGBT advocates say they’re prepared to throw their support behind legislation related to same-sex marriage that’s been championed by anti-gay groups, including Texas Values and the Texas Pastor Council.

House Bill 3567, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), states that churches and clergy cannot be forced to participate in the “solemnization, formation, or celebration” of a same-sex marriage.

“It’s my job here at the ACLU to protect religious liberty, and if the bill is really about religious liberty, we’re going to come out in favor of it,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “There’s not a single example of any clergy being forced to perform a wedding that they don’t believe is consistent with their faith, but nevertheless we agree with the principle.”

The Texas Pastor Council, which has led efforts to overturn nondiscrimination ordinances in Houston and Plano, brought in dozens of religious leaders to testify in favor of the bill during a committee hearing last week. Meanwhile, LGBT advocates said the bill was too broad and could allow religiously affiliated organizations, including hospitals and universities, to discriminate against gay couples.

However, Sanford has since introduced a substitute that addresses many of those concerns by significantly narrowing the bill’s scope. In a letter to Sanford on Wednesday, Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas requested one additional minor change that the groups said, if made, would allow them to support HB 3567.

Robertson said other states have enacted similar protections in conjunction with marriage equality legislation or nondiscrimination laws. Texas is one of only 13 states where same-sex marriage is still banned, but the U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to change that next month.

“There’s a reason that we can all get together on this bill,” Robertson said. “It’s a principle we all agree on, and people can take comfort in the fact that their personal faith traditions are not going to be threatened. There’s room for both religious liberty and equality. We have a big Constitution.”

Several media outlets reported Thursday that Senate Republicans had attempted to fast-track a companion bill at the request of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, only to have a hearing delayed by Democrats in a procedural move.

That bill, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), is identical to the original version of HB 3567. The LGBT groups are hopeful Estes will be willing to address their concerns in the same way Sanford has. Neither Estes nor Sanford responded to messages seeking comment.

“There are ongoing conversations that are headed in the right direction, and if they continue in how they’re going, there’s every real possibility we’ll wind up with a bill we can support,” said Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas.

LGBT advocates say churches and clergy are already protected from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Texas Constitution and the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“There are churches today that will refuse to perform a wedding for couples of different faiths, or for a couple where one of them has divorced, or for interracial couples, and these churches absolutely have that right,” Williams said, “and once the freedom to marry comes to the state of Texas, churches will absolutely have the right to refuse to perform or recognize those weddings.

“Absolutely no one is trying to change that, and so long as any proposed legislation conforms to the current standards, it will have our support.”

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, said his group continues to support the substitute version of HB 3567, and would not balk if SB 2065 is similarly revised.

“It’s frankly not one of the stronger bills,” Welch said. “It’s not one that deals with some of the other fundamental threats against religious liberty that we still need to see happen, so I’m not surprised [LGBT advocates would support it] because in reality all it’s saying is that pastors should have the right to continue to do what they’ve always done.”

Welch said his group is still pushing religious freedom measures that are more sweeping, including some that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people. But most of those proposals appear stalled amid opposition from business leaders who fear the type of backlash seen in Indiana after it passed an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in March.

“Some of the Republican leadership are going to have to face the music if they don’t stand up for the principles upon which they were elected,” Welch said. “If they’re going to cater to the profit-at-all-cost corporate greed of the Texas Association of Business, which is basically standing on an empty platform of deception, they’ll ultimately lose the next election. … If Apple is going to pull out of Texas because we’re going to defend our religious freedom that has produced the same climate that brought them here to begin with, then frankly, move back to California.”

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John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Published at 12:56 pm CST