AUSTIN, Texas — State Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) is defending a religious liberty bill he filed, saying that critics who claim that it is intended to discriminate against gays are misinterpreting the bill.
The bill in question, HJR 55, proposes an amendment to Section 6, Article 1 of the Texas Constitution to prohibit the government from burdening “a person’s free exercise of religion” unless the burden is “necessary to further a compelling governmental interest” and “the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” State Senator Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) filed a similar measure, SJR 10, in the Senate.
Gay rights proponents quickly pounced, claiming that the bills were intended to target anti-discrimination measures passed in several Texas cities including Houston and Plano. The Texas Observer‘s headline on their story about the controversy called the measures “License to Discriminate” bills, and progressive activist group Progress Texas adopted that language in a fundraising appeal on their website.
“Not true at all,” said Villalba in an exclusive interview with Breitbart Texas. “That was not our intention at all.”
Villalba acknowledged that a version of this amendment that was filed during the last legislative session had broader language, but characterized HJR 55 as “very tailored” and specifically “not intended to prohibit local municipalities from passing non-discrimination ordinances.” Villalba pointed out that while the First Amendment to the United States Constitution contains two provisions related to religion — the establishment clause barring the government from establishing an official religion and the free exercise clause that protects religious liberties — the Texas Constitution includes an establishment clause and “it alludes to a free exercise clause but it wasn’t specifically enumerated.”
“What I’ve done is added into the Texas Constitution a free exercise clause,” said Villalba. “There’s nothing new to that.” He pointed out several examples where this amendment could come into play, such as prohibiting a school district from barring a valedictorian from mentioning Jesus in their graduation speech, or protecting holiday displays on government property, like the nativity scene at the Cherokee County Courthouse.
Critics of the proposed amendment have said that Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is sufficient protection for religious liberties. Villalba disagrees. “You’d think with RFRA that all these issues would go away, but you’d be wrong,” he said. “We consistently see situations with children being told they can’t read bibles at school,” the Cherokee County Courthouse, and other examples.
“These issues are important to me,” said Villalba. “I’m not trying to pander to the right, or to offend the LGBT community or to support discrimination.” Villalba, whose children go to public school, told Breitbart Texas that he wants to make sure his children’s school can have a Christmas pageant, or that football players can have a voluntary prayer after a game, they “should be able to do so without fear of reprisal.”
Villalba described himself as a “strong proponent of local control” and said that any local government entity that wanted to pass a non-discrimination ordinance would only have to articulate what the government interest was, and that preventing discrimination could be such an interest.
To draft HJR 55, Villalba consulted with the attorneys at the Liberty Institute, who he described as “on the cutting edge” of these cases around the country, to advise on what statutes in other states have been able to pass constitutional muster. State Representative Matthew Krause (R-Arlington) also helped advise on the language. Krause, who has practiced constitutional law for five years, told Breitbart Texas that HJR 55 was “something that Texans have wanted for a long time” and as Villalba had said, merely intended to “reaffirm the religious liberties already in the Texas Constitution.”
Krause said that both he and Villalba were “concerned as we look around the state and country, seeing the free exercise of religion being diminished in a lot of ways.”
“I think a lot of people are reading things into it that aren’t there,” said Krause.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.