State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, on the Senate floor Wednesday.
State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, on the Senate floor Wednesday. Juan Figueroa/The Texas Tribune

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan HughesSenate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on his or her association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

Democrats, questioning whether Hughes’ bill would protect organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church — called “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center — worked to amend the bill to clarify that it does not protect discriminatory groups hiding behind the cover of religion. Pointing to the law’s definition of “religious organization,” Hughes asserted such language was unnecessary and said some amendments could “confuse” the bill.

State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who has filed a number of bills to outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ communities, questioned why the upper chamber is debating a measure that worries gay communities instead of a measure that protects their rights.

"Session after session, we end up entertaining legislation that sends a message to my LGBT staff members. … They feel they're coming under attack for who they are. So the question I have is: What do you say to them?” Menendez asked. “Do you think Chick-fil-A needs more protection from us than our constituents who have a history of being discriminated against?”

Throughout the lengthy floor debate, Hughes maintained that his bill does not sanction discrimination.

“I would only ask you to look at the language in this amendment we’ll be offering and show us where there’s discrimination,” Hughes said. In the new version of the measure, he said, “folks will be hard pressed to find discrimination.”

The bill will need to move quickly if it is to make it to the governor’s desk. The deadline for the House to pass it is Tuesday; before then, it must receive a committee hearing and approval, and also move through the lower chamber’s Calendars Committee.

Its chances look good in the lower chamber, though it died there on a procedural motion last week. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen told Spectrum News this week he supports the bill, adding, “I think it would pass the House.” A House companion bill has 70 co-authors, nearly half the chamber.

Hughes’ bill, which he amended on the floor, is nearly identical to the House proposal that died last week — but with one notable difference.

Hughes’ bill says it does not apply to a 2017 law that made it illegal for the state to contract with companies unless they pledge not to boycott Israel; Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a bill to narrow that law, excluding state contractors with very few employees, after a federal judge temporarily blocked the law’s enforcement, citing free speech concerns.

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio airport after a member of the City Council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has billed himself as a crusader for religious liberty, leapt into the ensuing culture war, launching an investigation into the city’s actions in that case and asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to probe the situation as well.

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