Equality Texas Anticipates a ‘Difficult’ Legislative Session in Austin

by John Wright

Get ready to play some defense. That’s the message from Equality Texas heading into the 84th Texas Legislature, which begins January 13.

Republicans picked up seats in November elections, further increasing their lopsided majorities in both the House and Senate. And anti-LGBT lawmakers are expected to respond to the spread of marriage equality to 35 states in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 ruling in Windsor v. United States striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. “We’ve seen that nationally,” said Daniel Williams of Houston, legislative specialist for Equality Texas. “There has been a backlash against the freedom to marry in states that have had legislative sessions since Windsor. We’re going to see backlash. It’s going to be a difficult session. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but we’ll prevail.”

In fact, the attacks have already begun, with the introduction of legislation in both the House and Senate that would enshrine a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people in the state Constitution. The proposed amendments from Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) and Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) are an apparent response to the small number of bakers, florists, and other business owners who’ve faced discrimination complaints in other states for refusing to serve same-sex couples.

In Texas, one effect of the proposals would be limiting cities’ ability to enforce nondiscrimination ordinances by allowing business owners to claim religious exemptions. Williams said he also expects a bill to be filed that would bar cities from enacting nondiscrimination ordinances in the first place.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford) has threatened to file legislation to prohibit the state from providing transition-related healthcare to transgender prison inmates, and Rep. Matt Krause (R-Arlington) is again expected to introduce a proposal that would authorize university clubs to discriminate against LGBT students.

For the third consecutive session, Williams said lawmakers are also likely to target Texas A&M’s LGBT Resource Center, which drew their ire by holding a Lavender Graduation to recognize and celebrate the university’s LGBT graduates this year.

And to make matters worse, it could be more difficult to defeat anti-LGBT legislation in the Senate, which is expected to change its rules to allow legislation to be considered with the support of 60 percent of members, instead of the two-thirds majority currently required. “It would be easier to get legislation that’s outside the mainstream onto the floor,” Williams said. “That works both directions, but it would make it easier for Sen. Campbell to get her ‘license to discriminate’ legislation to the Senate floor for a vote.”

Nevertheless, Williams remains confident the LGBT community and its allies can stave off the attacks. No anti-LGBT bill has passed since the marriage amendment in 2005. “We’re very adept at stopping bad legislation, but the way that we stop bad legislation is by massive public outcry,” Williams said. “I’m confident because these proposals are not in keeping with Texas values, they’re not in keeping with the will of the people of Texas, and if the people of Texas get engaged and contact their lawmakers and continue to participate in the legislative process, we will be able to defeat these. The only way any of this becomes law is if the people don’t get involved.”

On the bright side, the 84th Texas Legislature will be the first in history to include two openly LGBT lawmakers, Reps. Mary Gonzalez (D-El Paso) and Celia Israel (D-Austin).

In addition, the session has already seen several firsts when it comes to pro-LGBT legislation. On the first day of pre-filing in November, lawmakers in the House and Senate—including Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)—introduced measures that would overturn Texas’ statutory and constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. “A full array of marriage legislation has already been filed,” Williams said. “That’s the first time we’ve had a statutory piece filed in the Senate, and the fact that all four pieces were filed on the first day of filing is telling.”

Another first could come in the form of a proposal to ban so-called “reparative therapy” for minors. The Texas GOP added a plank endorsing “reparative therapy” to its platform in 2014, but Equality Texas has submitted petitions to the state’s mental health licensing boards seeking to outlaw the practice. Depending on the outcome of the petitions, there could be legislation from either side. “We are positioned to counter any attempt to make the torture of reparative therapy mainstream or acceptable in Texas law,” Williams said.

In addition to longstanding proposals to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in employment and insurance, Williams said he anticipates a measure targeting housing bias for the first time in 2015. He’s also hoping to see a bill that would prohibit anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodations for the first time since 2007.

Other firsts include a measure that would ban anti-LGBT discrimination by state contractors, as well as a Senate version of a bill that would allow same-sex couples to have both parents’ names on the birth certificates of adopted children. The birth certificate bill was introduced by Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), who joined the Legislature midway through the 2013 session. “She didn’t really have a chance to flex her ally muscles,” Williams said of Garcia. “The Houston legislative delegation has led the way for decades on issues that affect the LGBT community and continues to do so today. It’s important that we continue to support these lawmakers by telling them we appreciate their efforts, and also by contacting their colleagues and asking them to support those efforts.”

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