Gay rights advocates began sounding the alarm Wednesday after two anti-LGBT bills cleared House committees and another received a favorable hearing.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said if LGBT groups and their corporate allies don’t work quickly to generate the type of backlash seen over a religious freedom bill in Indiana last month, it could soon be too late.
Miller made the statement on a day when separate House panels advanced bills that would bar county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses and allow state-funded adoption agencies to turn away gay couples based on religious beliefs. The two bills, which breached a dam that had kept a record number of anti-LGBT measures at bay for the first 100 days of the session, now head to the Calendars Committee.
“My fear is that if the Indiana-style outrage doesn’t happen now, before these bills make it to the floor of the House, it will be too late, because the membership of the House will pass these bills, and then the Senate will fly them through, and Gov. [Greg] Abbott will have no choice but to sign them in his mind,” Miller said.
Miller and others said with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear oral arguments on same-sex marriage Tuesday, moderate Republicans in the Legislature are feeling the heat from social conservatives.
“I feel like the Republican base is desperately afraid of the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer,” Miller said. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the leadership in the House to pass anti-LGBT legislation. I think some of Speaker [Joe] Straus’ lieutenants are more likely to cave in to that pressure than others.”
The pressure from the right was palpable at the Capitol on Wednesday as scores of evangelical pastors from across the state gathered to lobby in support of anti-LGBT legislation. Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton addressed the pastors in a closed-door meeting, before dozens testified in favor of a religious freedom bill.
Dave Welch, executive director of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, told the group they’re in a “tug of war” against business interests that oppose anti-LGBT legislation due to potential negative economic impacts.
Speaking on the north steps of the Capitol, Welch accused legislative committee chairs of “bottling up” anti-LGBT legislation, which he called “a hot potato that everybody’s terrified of … because of the massive amount of national counterpressure” in places like Indiana.
“Unfortunately, that’s what’s speaking right now,” Welch told the pastors.
Asked later whether his side can win the tug of war, Welch said, “Ask Goliath.”
“We’re not going to let the Texas Association of Business and [Executive Director] Bill Hammond or any other group sell their soul—they’re welcome to do that, we can’t stop them—but we’re not going to let them steal our freedom, and that’s what this is all about,” Welch told the Observer. “When big corporations … declare war on the church and war on religious freedom, we’re going to answer the call.”
Moments before the pastors gathered, the House Committee on State Affairs voted 7-3 along party lines to advance House Bill 4105, by Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), which would prohibit state or local funds from being used to license or recognize same-sex marriages.
Among those voting in favor of the bill was Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a moderate who chairs the committee and has come out in support of one pro-LGBT bill.
“For me, I believe in the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, so that’s why I voted for it,” Cook said.
Bell compared the Supreme Court’s impending decision on same-sex marriage to Roe v. Wade and said Texas doesn’t have to spend tax dollars to support it. He also suggested the state could choose not to heed the ruling because the court is not considering a Texas case.
“Unless it’s on a Texas case, states have a level of autonomy,” he said.
Asked about potential backlash from the business community over anti-LGBT legislation, Bell called it a “non-issue.”
“I think the vast majority of Texans and Texas businesses will continue to function exactly like they function today,” Bell said. “We produce the vast majority of the gasoline across the country. I don’t see folks not using gasoline.”
The Texas Association of Business, the state’s powerful chamber of commerce, has come out against two proposed religious freedom amendments that critics say would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the Texas Constitution. But the TAB has remained silent on the bills that cleared committee Wednesday.
“We have not taken a position and doubtful (with timing of the session) that we will be able to,” TAB President Chris Wallace said in an email. “We will continue to monitor the business-related implications.”
Late Wednesday, the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Affairs voted 6-1 to advance House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow state-funded child welfare providers to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, dozens of pastors gave hours of testimony in support of House Bill 3567, also by Sanford, which he said is designed to prevent clergy from being forced to perform same-sex marriages. Critics of HB 3567 say it’s so broadly written that it could allow any religiously affiliated organization—from hospitals to universities and homeless shelters—to discriminate against LGBT people.
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he believes Wednesday was a coordinated day of anti-LGBT legislative activity in advance of marriage arguments at the high court. Equality Texas representatives have consistently expressed confidence they can kill all of the more than 20 anti-LGBT bills introduced in the 84th Texas Legislature.
“That was never prefaced with the belief that we could stop every bill from getting out of committee,” Smith said. “I still think that’s achievable, but to do that is a day-to-day battle that sometimes involves changing strategy from day to day.”