GOP lawmaker drops religious freedom bill

A House Republican will no longer seek to amend the Texas Constitution to prohibit state and local governments from “in any way” restricting the free exercise of religion, leaving several conservative legislators hustling Tuesday to file an alternate bill.

Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, said opposition from the Texas Association of Business cemented his growing discomfort with legislation he had filed in December, House Joint Resolution 55, that has also been criticized for potentially undermining nondiscrimination ordinances adopted by cities, including Austin, to protect gays and lesbians.

“When the Texas Association of Business let us know that in their opinion it would harm businesses, that’s when I just couldn’t continue in its support,” Villalba said Tuesday. “So I will not ask for a hearing. … and I will not be moving forward on that legislation.”

Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said discussions are underway to determine if similar legislation can be submitted by Friday’s bill-filing deadline.

“I definitely feel there’s interest there. Who that is going to be, I couldn’t tell you at this point,” said Krause, who helped Villalba draft the proposed amendment. “But we’re three days away from the deadline, and that makes it a little harder to start those conversations again.”

A similar bill by state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, would bar government from infringing on Texans’ “sincerely held religious beliefs.” A public hearing, the first step in the legislative process, has not yet been set on Campbell’s Senate Joint Resolution 10.

The amendment proposals have fired passions on both sides.

Conservative Christians have argued that state law does not adequately protect their ability to practice their faith, particularly as traditional values are challenged by political leaders and courts, including federal judges who have struck down gay-marriage bans in Texas and other states. (Texas is able to continue enforcing its ban while the judge’s decision is on appeal).

Civil liberty groups oppose the change, saying the vaguely worded amendments would undermine the comprehensive Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999, spark numerous lawsuits and allow discrimination based on religious belief.

The Texas Association of Business, a powerful lobby at the Legislature, entered the fray on Feb. 17 when its board voted to oppose the amendments by Villalba and Campbell.

“A constitutional amendment that allows people to use religion to discriminate and harm others would give Texas a reputation for being judgmental and unwelcoming, creating an environment that is hostile to business and economic development,” an association memo said.