Controversial religious freedom bill passes Texas Senate, faces backlash from LGBTQ activists

Chad Lyle

The Texas Senate passed a proposal Tuesday that would prevent state agencies from revoking the licenses of workers who refuse service to certain customers based on “sincerely held religious belief(s),” drawing criticism from activists in the LGBTQ community.

Authored by state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, Senate Bill 17 also stops state agencies from punishing workers in other ways. Every Republican with the exception of state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, voted in favor of the bill, while every Democrat with the exception of state Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, voted against it. 

Mary Elizabeth Castle, a legislative analyst and public policy adviser for Texas Values, an organization advocating for biblically based family values, said SB 17 was designed to protect religious liberty rather than discriminate against anyone.

“The bill is mostly about the fact that people have been coming to the Senator and saying that they’ve been attacked, they’ve had their licenses at risk of being taken away because (of religious views),” Castle said. “This is about the First Amendment. It’s about people being free to be who they are, free to believe in what they believe, and that’s something that our country was founded on and I think we should protect.”

Joshua Blank, the manager of polling and research at The Texas Politics Project, said the phrase “sincerely held religious belief,” has an explicit purpose in legislation such as Perry’s, though critics have called it ambiguous.   

“It has been the term of art in recent sessions,” Blank said. “In essence, there’s basically an acknowledgement that a plain religious belief is not enough to exempt someone from particular laws, but a sincerely held religious belief is. Having said that, the definitional problems of that phrase are not lost on anyone.”  

During the 85th and 86th legislatures, “sincerely held religious belief” appeared in 23 separate bills that were introduced in the Texas House and Senate.

SB 17 lays out exceptions for doctors and law enforcement officials, stating religious beliefs cannot prevent them from performing duties essential to the life or health of an individual. Castle said she believes this is an important addition to the bill.

“(Perry) of course doesn’t want anyone’s life to be threatened — doctors have to offer care and counselors have to counsel people who may do harm,” Castle said. “This is really just about any type of practice that would go against
someone’s conscience.”

Despite claims that SB 17 is not discriminatory in nature, LGBTQ activist groups such as the Human Rights Campaign have voiced strong disapproval of the measure. In a statement, Human Rights Campaign Texas state director Rebecca Marques called the bill “broadly discriminatory.”

“Today’s vote on SB 17 marks a dark moment for Texas: the passage of one of the most broadly discriminatory bills under consideration across the country,” Marques said in a statement released Tuesday. “This bill would allow state-sanctioned discrimination against many Texans, but would particularly impact the LGBTQ community.”

SB 17 is not the only bill critics have said targets the LGBTQ community. SB 15, authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, addresses mandatory paid leave ordinances in cities such as Austin. The legislation came to the attention of LGBTQ activists when a section protecting local nondiscrimination ordinances was removed.

If passed by the Texas House and signed by the governor, SB 17 will go into effect Sept. 1 of this year.


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