AUSTIN, Texas — One bill would make it legal to decline adoption services to gay couples. Another could deny them marriage licenses. Others would bar transgender Texans from using the public bathroom of their choice.
Supporters of the bills circulating in the Texas Legislature this session say they’re intended to protect the religious rights of citizens or maintain safety in public bathrooms. Critics counter they’re an unprecedented attack on LGBT rights.
Gay rights activists count 24 bills introduced into the Legislature this session they say infringe on the rights of LGBT residents in Texas — more than any other time in state history. The bills are a new front in the attack on LGBT rights by Texas’ Republican-led Legislature following a key U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago recognizing the right to marry for same-sex couples, said Chuck Smith, president of Equality Texas, which advocates for LGBT rights.
“This is the most number of specifically anti-LGBT bills that we’ve ever faced,” he said. “It’s an all-out assault on LGBT people.”
One of the most contentious bills has been Senate Bill 6, the so-called “bathroom bill,” which would require that people use bathrooms in public schools and government buildings based on their “biological sex” and prohibit transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
Just as it did for a similar law recently passed in North Carolina, Senate Bill 6 has drawn withering criticism from civil rights activists as well as business and tourism leaders. In a letter to Texas senators in March, Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Association of Business, warned that the bill, if passed, would lead to at least $407 million in direct spending losses for the state. The bill passed the Senate but has stalled in the House.
Another bill would allow county clerks to pass off issuing marriage licenses to other county officials if it conflicts with their religious beliefs, and another would keep transgender athletes from competing in high school sports. "If these bills are enacted in their current form, we will see litigation," Smith said.
Texas is not alone. This year, state lawmakers have introduced 131 anti-LGBT bills in 30 states, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. Only nine of those bills so far have passed into law. Texas leads the nation with the number of bills considered anti-LGBT. Last year, 252 bills were introduced, eight of which became laws, according to the HRC statistics.
The trend is a familiar one: Just as with reproductive or voter rights, when initiatives that impede minorities’ rights are blocked at the federal level, lawmakers turn to state houses to try to pass laws, said Cathryn Oakley, HRC’s senior legislative counsel. The anti-LGBT bills began surfacing as the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges case headed to the Supreme Court, she said. In that landmark case, justices ruled 5-4 that same-sex couples had the fundamental right to marry.
“It’s happening all around the country,” Oakley said of the anti-LGBT bills. “Unsurprisingly, Texas just does it bigger.”
Texas Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said the Texas bills are about allowing citizens and agencies to exercise their religious beliefs, not impeding LGBT rights. His initiative, House Bill 3859, would allow faith-based agencies to deny adoption and fostering services to couples if it goes against their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Agencies that deny a couple would have to offer a referral to that couple, according to the bill.
Frank said he hopes the bill encourages more faith-based agencies to expand their services. The bill passed the House last week and is headed to the Senate, where it is expected to pass. “Just because you want to serve children doesn’t mean you have to leave your beliefs at the door,” he said.
Having the White House echo similar sentiments helps in promoting religious liberty initiatives at the state level, Frank said. Earlier this month, President Trump signed the “religious liberty” executive order, aimed at allowing churches and other religious organizations to become politically active.
"It certainly helps," Frank said. "It feels like you're not fighting against the federal government."
Randy Daniels, vice president of Dallas-based Buckner Children & Family Services, a Baptist-affiliated adoption and foster service agency, said HB 3859 could shield agencies such as his from lawsuits if they turn away same-sex couples. Counselors at his agency meet with same-sex couples looking to foster or adopt, explain their beliefs, then refer them to the dozens of other adoption agencies that do work with same-sex couples, he said.
“It’s not my job to judge people,” Daniels said. “We meet with everybody and explain our religious beliefs and we just ask that you honor and respect what we believe in.”
But laws that specifically target the LGBT community are hurtful and could have lasting impacts in their communities, even if they're not passed, said the Rev. Karen Thompson, lead pastor at Metropolitan Community Church of Austin, a majority LGBT congregation.
Earlier this month, Thompson and other clergy filed into the State Capitol for a “prayer protest” of the bills and handed lawmakers a letter signed by 40 faith-based leaders across Texas denouncing the initiatives. Just debating the bills has already harmed members of her congregation, she said.
“I preach and teach that we are all created in the image of God. We are all beloved and are all worthy,” Thompson said. “Every time these (bills) come through, I see a negative impact on real people.”
She said the Capitol protest was the just the start of what she predicts will be ongoing actions from an array of clergy against the bills. "We are committed to this being the beginning of our work together," Thompson said.