Monday’s Freedom Advocacy Day at the Texas Capitol couldn’t have come at a more critical time.
With two anti-LGBT bills scheduled for hearings this week, hundreds of gay-rights supporters rallied on the north steps before fanning out to lawmakers’ offices during the lobby day organized by Equality Texas.
Rep. Ron Reynolds (D-Missouri City), who spoke at the rally, drew parallels to the civil rights movement, saying that just like racial bias, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is “dead wrong.”
“We must have that same commitment, that same fire and determination, that those civil rights workers had,” Reynolds said. “They were willing to do anything, no matter what it took, to make sure they eradicated those discriminatory laws.”
With several attendees holding signs saying, “Don’t Indiana My Texas,” Reynolds also referenced backlash from major corporations over an anti-LGBT religious freedom law in the Hoosier State.
“People came forward from all over America to stand up against bigotry, and we have to do that same thing in Texas,” he said.
Republican lawmakers have introduced a record 22 anti-LGBT bills in the 84th Texas Legislature, but thus far only two dealing with same-sex marriage, an issue likely to be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, have had hearings. And with fewer than 50 days remaining before sine die, time may be running out.
“Once you’re a couple of weeks past Easter, you’re in danger of not passing your bill,” said Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin). “This week, maybe next week, if you haven’t at least had a hearing, then you’re in trouble.”
House Bill 2801, by Rep. Gilbert Peña (R-Pasadena), which would prohibit schools from allowing students to use restrooms and similar facilities according to their gender identity, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on State Affairs. House Bill 3864, by Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), which would allow child welfare providers that contract with the state to discriminate based on sincerely held religious beliefs, will be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues.
Peña, who previously said the goal of HB 2801 is protecting students’ privacy, refused to further discuss the bill this week. Sanford didn’t respond to messages seeking comment about HB 3864.
Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, said he believes HB 3864 is designed to allow faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to place children with gay parents. But he said the bill is written so broadly that it would sanction discrimination based on a variety of factors, including minority religious beliefs, and even against children themselves.
“I think it points to the level of extremes that we’re reaching if in fact, in the interests of so-called religious freedom, we’re actually targeting children and youth in our state, and that I think is despicable and not a place where we want to go,” Smith said.
Smith said HB 2801 would take decisions about restroom use by transgender students out of the hands of educators, who are currently addressing it on a school-by-school and district-by-district basis. Under the bill, schools would be liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms according to how they identify.
“This legislation amounts to bullying and harassment of transgender students to the point of placing a bounty on their heads for them to be turned in for using a restroom,” Smith said.
Kenneth D. Upton Jr., senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said HB 2801 would run afoul of Title IX, which the U.S. Department of Education has said prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in schools.
Israel noted that even if the bills clear committee, she helped derail two anti-LGBT budget amendments on the House floor two weeks ago.
“If the budget night was any indicator, some of my colleagues who identity themselves as Republican don’t want to have these kinds of battles any more than we do,” Israel said.
Watch speeches from Monday’s rally by Reynolds and openly LGBT Rep. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) below.