Editorial: Free to be free, Chron

Yes, Texans, we know it’s hard to believe, but there really was a time in the not-so-distant past when a bipartisan group of lawmakers approved a Texas religious freedom law. The year was 1999, and its sponsors included state Sens. David Sibley, a Waco Republican; Florence Shapiro, a Dallas Republican, and Royce West, a Dallas Democrat. The House sponsor was Scott Hochberg, a Houston Democrat. Supporters of their bill included the Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission, the Texas Association of Business and the American Civil Liberties Union. Mirroring a 1993 federal law, the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act was signed into law by Gov. George W. Bush.

The Texas law, although used sparingly, apparently has worked well. It comes to mind, because a cadre of hardliners in the Legislature this session aren’t satisfied. As Lauren McGaughy of the Chronicle reported recently, they want to “enhance” it. That’s the word they use, but what they want, in essence, is a law that gives people the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of religious belief. As in Indiana and Arkansas recently, their efforts have prompted opposition that we suspect surprised them.

State Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, the hardest of the hardliners in the House, is sponsoring House Bill 2553, legislation that would allow anyone to “refuse to provide goods or services to any person based on a sincerely held religious belief or on conscientious grounds.” Her hardline Senate counterpart, New Braunfels Republican Donna Campbell, is sponsoring Senate Joint Resolution 10, legislation that would enshrine the 15-year-old Texas law into the state Constitution – without the key civil rights and local control protections that helped attract bipartisan support when it passed in 1999. State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has proposed an identical bill in the House.

One way to understand the difference between the 1999 Texas law and current proposals is to picture a shield and a sword. The original laws, both state and federal, give a religious person a way to defend himself – a shield, so to speak – against government requirements that would unreasonably impinge on the person’s religious beliefs. The proposals by White and her conservative cohorts offer them a sword to fend off those they find objectionable, mainly gays, lesbians and transgender Texans. No doubt many are sincere in their beliefs, but the powers that would be granted by the proposed legislation come cringingly close to images from the past – images that involve lunch counters or Lester Maddox wielding ax handles against would-be customers at his Atlanta chicken restaurant.

Fortunately, unlikely critics of the Texas proposals, including Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, are warning of unintended consequences. “These amendments are bad for business,” Hammond said at a Capitol news conference last week. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business. One has to look no further than Indiana to realize what a detriment this would be and how hard it would make it to sell Texas to the rest of our country.”

Hammond also warned that the proposed legislation would endanger local nondiscrimination ordinances like those in Houston and San Antonio.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, characterized the bills as license to discriminate. “There’s absolutely no doubt that passing these amendments would bring the same uproar and condemnation to Texas, and I would help it,” he said.

What we can hope is that committee chairs and other legislative honchos are listening. State Rep. Byron Cook, a Corsicana Republican who chairs the House State Affairs Committee, told the Chronicle the House must be “very thoughtful” about bringing the Krause bill up for a vote. Cook’s Senate counterpart, Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said there were no plans for now to hear the legislation.

With education, transportation, water, health care, taxes and a budget on their plate, serious lawmakers need to remind Campbell, White and friends that they have enough to worry about during the remaining days of the session. They don’t need to plunge into the thorny weeds of religion.

Editorial_ Free to be free – Houston Chronicle