Texas businesses would be allowed to fire LGBT employees and turn away LGBT customers under a new proposal issued Monday by state Sen. Donna Campbell (R).
Campbell’s proposal would strengthen existing protections in Texas for the “right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief,” a legal maneuver that critics have described as a “license to discriminate.” This year, many state legislatures have considered putting the religious rights of business owners over the civil rights of would-be customers. Similar proposals in Kansas, North Carolina, South Dakota, Arizona, and Oregon ultimately failed this year, while a number of other states have held that the law protects LGBT folks from discrimination even if that discrimination is based in scripture.
Mississippi signed a license to discriminate into law, and Kentucky lawmakers overrode the governor’s veto to put their own religious freedom law into effect. In Pennsylvania, lawmakers who are trying to extend non-discrimination protections to LGBT couples have so far been stymied.
These laws have come into vogue after numerous anti-LGBT small business owners have refused service to LGBT clients in Kentucky, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, and other states in recent years. Many of these disputes involve bakeries and other vendors who refuse to contract for services at same-sex weddings, but some businesses have refused to print Pride t-shirts or put rainbow frosting on an order of cookies.
Conservative political forces have leaped to these companies’ aid, arguing that their religious convictions about sexuality trump everyone else’s civil rights against discrimination. Those calls grew louder after this summer’s Supreme Court decision that a retailer called Hobby Lobby did not have to provide health insurance that covers birth control due to the company’s religious views, a ruling that reversed decades of precedent whereby legal protections tied to religious faith were limited to actions that did not impede other people’s rights.
Sen. Campbell’s new proposal in Texas is her second bite at the license-to-discriminate apple. Her first, in 2013, didn’t go very well. Critics pointed out that by amending the state constitution as she proposes, lawmakers would empower Westboro Baptist Church protesters to attend military funerals rather than protesting them from afar. One commentator applauded Campbell’s intentions but warned that the way her proposal was written might some day allow a person to claim a sincere religious belief in the right to an abortion, effectively legalizing abortion in Texas.
Her new proposal is “nearly identical” to the 2013 version, according to the Lone Star Q, which also notes that Texas already has a statute on the books that “provides strong protections for religious freedom.” Campbell’s proposal removes a key adverb from the legislative language, which a lawmaker who helped pass the existing religious freedom law says would render the protections far too expansive.
While many conservatives are convinced that the religious liberty to discriminate against LGBT coworkers and clients is under attack, there are still 29 states where it is completely legal to fire someone for their sexual orientation. Workplace discrimination against transgendered people remains legal in 32 states. The federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed the Senate last year, but never had a chance of advancing in Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) House of Representatives.
Even before Republicans retook the Senate earlier this month, ENDA already lost significant support from progressive LGBT groups who feel that the laws carve-outs for religious employers are too broad. With ENDA politically dead for the time being, President Obama has used executive authority to provide workplace discrimination protections to federal workers and anyone employed by a business that contracts with the government, and has not provided religious carve-outs in those executive orders.