A House committee has re-inserted protections for NDOs into a religious exemption bill, but there’s a long way to go

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
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You win some; you lose some. That was definitely the story for the LGBT community this week when it comes to the Texas Legislature.

Several pieces of legislation potentially harmful to the LGBT community were heard in committee this week. And while the community scored a win regarding an effort to repeal local non-discrimination ordinances, Equality Texas Interim Executive Director Samantha Smoot said Thursday, May 2, a religious exemption bill that could cause great harm has been advanced.

The win came in the House State Affairs Committee, where, shortly after midnight Wednesday night, passed Senate Bill 2486, authored by Beaumont Republican Brandon Creighton, out of committee on a 9-2 vote — but only after adding back in protections for NDOs that have been removed in the Senate.

“Now, what does that mean? It means that this committee did hear the voices of those who mobilized in support of protecting NDOs,” Smoot said. “This is the same committee that heard testimony on two terrible bills [that would have, essentially, allowed anti-LGBT discrimination]. They have heard from a lot of LGBTQ people about how discrimination affects them and their families. I believe that our voices have been heard, and in that sense, this is a tremendous victory.”

Among those testifying this week were Dallas activist Steve Atkinson and former Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns. Atkinson, Smoot noted, “made a point that no one else has made during the debate. He said that he was one of the activists who worked so hard to get Dallas’ NDO passed 17 years ago, and in the 17 years since then, not a single business has had any issues with the NDO. That’s an important note for these legislators to hear.”

Burns, as part of his testimony against the measure, presented an “Open Letter in support of NonDiscrimination Ordinances from Dallas, Fort Worth and Plano Community Leaders” to committee members. The letter, signed by more than 200 elected officials, community leaders and advocates, cited surveys showing that more than two-thirds of Texans support nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBT people, and that NDOs are “an important competitive tool in the war for talent, corporate investment, innovation, and tourism.”

And while Smoot counts the House committee’s move to re-include NDOs as a win, the fight’s not over yet.

“Now the bill goes back to the Senate, and the question there is, will Dan Patrick accept NDOs protections for our community or not,” she said. “We’ve got a long way to go before we are in the clear. Still, this was a very positive step” that happened because the LGBT community and its allies, especially in the business community, mobilized against the effort to repeal NDOs.

Another looming threat
Another looming threat to the LGBT community, Smoot said, is HB 3172, authored by Fort Worth Republican Matt Krause, which “is on its way to the Calendars Committee” where it could be scheduled for consideration on the House floor.

HB 3172 “started out as one of the most wide-ranging, dangerous religious exemption bills,” one of several bills introduced in this session that would allow individuals to discriminate against LGBT people and others by claiming a “sincerely-held religious belief, Smoot explained. “it has since been whittled down considerably and is pretty hollow, but it is still dangerous,” she continued. “It is still the first chapter in the Project Blitz playbook,” a publication intended to help right-wing legislators around the country push through an agenda codifying their far-right agenda and imposing their religious beliefs on government.

“The first chapter is to pass hollow legislation and resolutions that advance the idea that our culture is under attack from the LGBTQ ‘lifestyle,’” Smoot said. “This is also a bill that would be a prime vehicle for anti-LGBTQ amendments on the House floor and, of course, in Dan Patrick’s Senate.”

Smoot said Equality Texas and other equality advocates are encouraging LGBT people and their allies statewide to contact members of the Calendars Committee and urge them not to schedule the bill for a vote.

“They don’t have to be your specific representative for you to contact them,” she noted. “These committees are all statewide committees, and committee members are representing the interests of the whole state, not just their district.

“So contact them now, and send the message. And the message is, ‘Do not send HB 3172 to the floor.’”

Calendars Committee members are Reps. Four Price, Joe Moody, Joe Deshotel, John Frullo, Craig Goldman, Oscar Longoria, Will Metcalf, Tom Oliverson, Eddie Rodriguez, Toni Rose and John Wray.

Also this week
A bill sponsored by openly-lesbian state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, that would ban anti-gay “conversion therapy” for minors in Texas, was heard in the House Committee on Public Affairs this week. And although it is unlikely to advance out of the committee, just the fact that there was a hearing was a big step forward, Smoot said.

Israel herself spoke during the hearing, telling her own story of how she was afraid to come out as a youth and how, at age 17, she tried to commit suicide, before eventually finding love and acceptance.

Israel’s closing “was emotional and wonderful,” Smoot said.

On Monday, April 29, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee heard testimony on Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman’s HB 1513, which calls for protections for transgender people to be added to Texas’ James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Law.

It was, Smoot said, “a remarkable hearing,” with six transgender people testifying in support of the measure.
HB 2109, introduced by Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, had a hearing Wednesday in the Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, Smoot said. This bill would allow justices of the peace, judges, magistrates and other elected officials to refuse to perform same-sex marriages by claiming a sincerely-held religious belief against such unions.

Smoot said witnesses testifying against the measure far out-numbered the “bigoted witnesses” who spoke in favor of it at the end of the hearing.

Contact information for state legislators, as well as videos of committee hearings, can be found online at Capitol.Texas.gov.