A group of extremist anti-LGBTQ pastors in Texas has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the city of Austin’s nondiscrimination law violates their religious liberty. The law, they argue, should be unenforceable for anybody unless they are given an exemption.
The so-called U.S. Pastor Council, which is almost exclusively based in Texas, explains in the complaint, “Because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered [sic] people as clergy.” They also won’t hire LGBTQ people for any church position because church employees must “live according to the Bible’s teachings on matters of sexuality and gender.” The churches likewise also prohibit women from serving in leadership.
Austin’s law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in employment, which the pastors say infringes on their ability to hire according to their beliefs. The law’s exemption allowing for discrimination on the basis of religious identity is not enough. “The ordinance allows a Catholic church to require its priests to be Catholic,” the complaint explains, “but it forbids the church to exclude Catholic women, Catholic homosexuals, or Catholic transgendered [sic] people from the priesthood.”
The lawsuit neglects to identify the 25 churches supposedly represented by the Council, so it’s unclear if this example of a Catholic Church even applies to any of them.
There have not been any reported cases of churches violating the law, which raises the question of whether the Pastor Council even has standing to bring this suit. Still, they insist that the entire law must be enjoined — preventing its enforcement “in any circumstance” — until it is amended to allow them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
This tactic is borrowed directly from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an anti-LGBTQ hate group challenging nondiscrimination laws across the country. ADF partners with local businesses that want to begin offering a service (like wedding calligraphy or videography) without having to provide it to same-sex couples. Even though they have not yet discriminated, they argue that because state or local laws could hold them accountable for discriminating according to their religious beliefs, the entire law should be overturned.
The U.S. Pastor Council has been one of the driving forces against LGBTQ equality in Texas. Last year, they rallied to support the “bathroom bill” Texas lawmakers were considering to mandate discrimination against transgender people. They were also at the forefront of the fight to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in 2015.
The group’s leader, Dave Welch, has an extensive record of anti-LGBTQ vitriol. He has described LGBTQ activists as pawns of Satan and claimed that gay people are fighting for “superior rights.” During the HERO fight, he claimed that “corrupt, amoral, godless leaders” were “literally trampling on every fundamental right,” accusing then-Mayor Annise Parker (D), who is openly lesbian, of “Nazi-esque, Gestapo-esque behavior.” The Texas Observer profiled Welch last year as part of its “Fringe Factor” series highlighting extremists impacting Texas politics, noting his ongoing opposition to anything that “normalizes the gay lifestyle.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) told KXAN News, “Nondiscrimination is a core value in Austin and we need to defend it.” A city spokesperson likewise promised, “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”
Texas lawmakers failed to pass its anti-transgender legislation in 2017, and Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has said it’s not on his agenda for the 2019 session. Some nevertheless see this lawsuit as a catalyzing force to renew the fight against LGBTQ equality statewide.