Religious Liberty Under Assault, Texas Senate Holds Hearings

The First Amendment and religious liberty has been under assault in Texas, and the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee held a hearing and took testimony to begin to look at potential solutions to propose during the 2017 legislative session.

The purpose of the hearing, as stated in the notice of public hearing, was to examine measures to affirm First Amendment religious liberty protections in Texas and to look at the relationship between local ordinances and state and federal law. The stated goal of the hearings was to “[m]ake recommendations to ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Representatives from Texas Values, First Liberty (formerly Liberty Institute), a Houston small business owner who makes a living as a faith-based photographer, and the lawyer who successfully defeated the City of Houston in the “bathroom ordinance” litigation, were among those who testified at the hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Bill Hammond, CEO of Texas Association of Business, also testified. Both of these groups worked against religious liberty bills during the 2015 Texas legislative session. Then and now, Hammond urged that ordinances like former Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s bathroom ordinance, are good for business in Texas.

As reported by Breitbart Texas, opponents say Parker’s ordinance would “open the door for quotas in hiring, in city contracts and affirmative action requirements,” and “if you refused to hire, do business with, or refuse access to female restrooms for transvestites, then you would be prosecuted as a criminal.”

The fight over what then-Mayor Annise Parker billed as the “HERO” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance), got so escalated in the openly gay mayor’s push of her LGBT agenda, that the City of Houston issued subpoenas for sermon notes, speeches, and private communications with church members. This was after opponents fighting the ordinance brought a law suit against the city.

Breitbart Texas has covered the fight in Houston, as well as the proposed legislation in Austin during the 2015 legislative session.

The Houston City Council passed the ordinance, which would have allowed men dressed as women in women’s restrooms and shower and gym facilities. Opponents collected more than 50,000 signatures to put a repeal measure on the ballot. Although only 17,269 signatures were required, the City of Houston invalidated 8,500 of the signatures based on legibility thus forcing opponents of the ordinance to litigation.

During the fight as reported by Breitbart Texas, Rev. Dave Welch, executive director of Texas Pastor Council referred to Mayor Parker saying, “We’re not afraid of this bully.” The senior pastor of megachurch Grace Community Church, Dr. Steve Riggle also charged, “This is an attempt to chill pastors from speaking to the cultural issues of the day.”

Both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Texas Ted Cruz  had to weigh into the assault on religious liberties and the subpoenas to the pastors. In a press conference gathered with Texas pastors, Cruz called the Mayor’s actions an
assault on religious liberty” and “unchecked government power.” Governor Abbott also sent a letter to the Houston’s City Attorney asking him to immediately withdraw the subpoenas.

Even Hillary Clinton hit back at Governor Abbott over his election day tweet urging Houstonians to vote against the ordinance. She had weighed in to support the ordinance, as reported by Breitbart Texas’ Bob Price. The Washington Post and other media outlets also interjected themselves into the election. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair donated to the campaign to defeat the ordinance, and former Houston Astros and six-time MLB All-Star Lance Berkman, filmed an ad speaking against it.

Although the fight to get the ordinance on the ballot was eventually successful, and Houston voters also soundly rejected the measure when it was put to a vote (by a margin of 61 to 39), the cost in attorney’s fees was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Andy Taylor, the lawyer for the pastors and other citizens working to defeat the bathroom ordinance told Breitbart Texas that they got hit with court costs even though they won. He says the law should change to allow for recovering for these legal fees when as a result of defending religious liberty issues, they prevail in court.

There have been many assaults on religious liberties in the Lone Star State and Breitbart Texas has reported about them. A very small and non-exhaustive list of such instances include: the City of Beaumont’s attempt to prohibit a voluntary bible study at lunch organized by employees, legal intervention because a school district banned cheerleaders from using words from the Bible on football and other banners, and county clerks being forced to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples in spite of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s AG opinion that clerks and other officials like judges “retain religious freedoms, and may claim that the government cannot force them to conduct same-sex wedding ceremonies.”

In a statement received by Texas Values president and attorney Jonathan Saenz he said, “Texas is known for being a stronghold for First Amendment freedoms, but religious liberty in Texas has been under attack now more than ever. Military servicemen, public school cheerleaders, police officers, county clerks, local judges, photographers and numerous faith-based nonprofits are under attack and have been singled out for punishment because of their religious beliefs. We believe all Texans should have religious freedom, but unfortunately the ACLU and others think the government and unelected judges should be able to “cherry-pick” who has religious freedom and who doesn’t.”

Saenz added, “This type of hostility and religious discrimination is dangerous and harmful to Texans, particularly faith-based nonprofits that provide charitable social services and small business owners that would be put out of business by costly litigation.”

Along with Saenz and Houston lawyer Andy Taylor, those who testified also included Dr. Steve Washburn, senior pastor of First Baptist Church Pflugerville and member of the Texas Pastor Council. His testimony is linked here.

Brantley Starr, Deputy Attorney General in the Office of the Attorney General, Jeffrey Patterson, Executive Director, Texas Catholic Conference, and Cindy Asmussen, Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Advisor, Southern Baptist of Texas Convention, were also on the witness list for those who were to testify.

Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, Joan Huffman (R-Houston) told Breitbart Texas, “The State Affairs Committee’s charge to affirm First Amendment religious liberty protections in Texas was well-served by all of the testimony given today and I am appreciative to the panelists and public who participated in today’s hearing.”

The Houston state senator added, “There should never be an excuse for government to force individuals, organizations, or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Sen. Huffman, who has served as a state district court judge in Houston, said she was “looking forward to working with other members to develop legislation that ensures sacred rights under the First Amendment are not violated.”

Lana Shadwick is a writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as a prosecutor and legal analyst in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2


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