Rep. Jason Villalba Disputes ‘License to Discriminate’ Label, Responds to LGBT Critics

Rep. Jason Villalba (center right with red tie) and Rep. Krause (center left) on WFAA's
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.”

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

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Published at 2:23 pm CST