As the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision to strike down bans on same-sex marriage, some Texas lawmakers are already looking to possibly tweak the state’s current laws that have previously prevented such unions.
“Leading up to the next legislative session, Texas lawmakers should identify any statutes that need to be changed in the wake of today’s decision,” said Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who supports same-sex marriage. “I will request that Speaker Straus include that task among his interim charges.”
Lawmakers often study issues between legislative sessions to help craft future legislation. Howard said she hopes the legislature would specifically focus on removing language from the state’s constitution related to marriage being between only a man and a woman, in addition to examining other statutes.
“We still have things on the books in regard to homosexual behavior, which is still on the books as unlawful,” she said. “Clearly, that needs to be addressed and changed. There’s probably a lot of things there, and that’s why we need to have this review.”
As Howard asks Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, to take up the topic, the leader of the upper chamber might be considering a similar approach – with a different goal before the 2017 session.
This week, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Texas, requested an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office, regarding the rights of government officials involved with issuing same-sex marriage licenses and conducting same-sex wedding ceremonies.
“If the Supreme Court declares a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, can a county clerk or his or her employees refuse to issue a same-sex marriage license if doing so would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs on marriage?” Patrick asked. “Lastly, could a justice of the peace or a judge refuse to conduce a same-sex wedding ceremony if doing so would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs on marriage.”
In anticipation of the ruling, Paxton warned county clerks this week to use caution before handing out marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He reminded officials that Texas law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
On Friday, Paxton issued a statement, saying: “Consistent with existing federal and state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that should already protect religious liberty and prevent discrimination based on religion, we must work to ensure that the guarantees of the First Amendment, protecting freedom of religion, and its corollary freedom of conscience, are secure for all Americans.”
Paxton specifically mentioned his concern about discrimination against “people of faith in the distribution of grants, licenses, certification or accreditation.” He further expressed the need to prevent “harassing lawsuits against people of faith, their business and religious organizations,” in addition to protecting religious adoption and foster care organizations and the children and families they serve.
“Shortly, my office will be addressing questions about the religious liberties of clerks of court and justices of the peace,” Paxton continued.
Gov. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, also issued a memo Friday directing state agencies to protect religious liberties and First Amendment rights.
“The government must never pressure a person to abandon or violate his or her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding a topic such as marriage,” Abbott said. “That sort of religious coercion will never be a ‘compelling governmental interest,’ and it will never be ‘the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.’”
He said the order “applies to any decision, including but not limited to granting or denying benefits, managing agency employees, entering or enforcing agency contracts, licensing and permitting decisions, or enforcing state laws and regulations.”
While Abbott pushes for protection of religious freedom, he also criticized the “personal views” of the five justices who voted in favor of the ruling. In a campaign email to supporters on Friday, Abbott asked for donations in light of the decision.
“Marriage was defined by God. No man can redefine it,” Abbott said in an email. “If you agree, I ask that you make a contribution to my campaign today.”
In the email, Abbott further vowed to fight for greater protections like the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Pastor Protection Act.
This month, Abbott signed a bill – the so-called Pastor Protection Act – into law. In effect Sept. 1, it allows clergy members to refuse to conduct marriages that violate their beliefs.