Texas Sen. Doesn't Want Clergy 'Coerced' Into Officiating Same-Sex Marriages

May 12, 2015
Originally published on May 12, 2015 5:09 pm

The Texas Legislature is sending a message this week on the subject of same-sex marriage. And that message is: Hell no — again.

The bill that just got initial approval in the Texas Senate would protect clergy from having to conduct any marriage ceremony or perform any service that would violate their sacred beliefs.

"We want to make sure they are not ever coerced into performing a marriage ceremony that would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs," State Sen. Craig Estes told NPR. Estes sponsored the bill.

The clergy are already protected from being compelled to do anything that would violate their religious beliefs; it's encoded in the language of separation of church and state in the Texas Constitution.

But Estes argues that the Texas Constitution actually says nothing about same-sex marriage and the clergy's rights regarding such, so he wanted to firm up the language.

Another bill, sponsored by Cecil Bell, in the Texas House would prohibit Texas officials from issuing or recognizing any same-sex-marriage licenses. That again is already the law in Texas.

But the prospect of a possible U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the right of same-sex couples to be married looms large for conservatives in the Texas Legislature. The language in Bell's bill seeks to codify that the realm of marriage is something for the states to decide.

It's a bit of a pre-emptive strike, if you will: Take that, Supreme Court!

These bills, warding off what's already been dispatched, are a bit of balm for the conservative Texas legislator's soul. The preferred legislation, the legislation with the real meat in it, was the Texas Religious Restoration Act modeled on the law in Indiana.

But after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed that into law all heck broke loose and forced Pence and the Republican Legislature to take it back, because the outside world wouldn't stop "misinterpreting the law's intent." So, that took a fair amount of wind out of the Texas bill's sails.

Then there was the fact that the Texas Association of Business was dead set against the Texas Religious Restoration Act too. The law could have given religious business owners the right to discriminate against same-sex couples without fear of legal retribution. TAB wanted no part of it, believing the law would damage big business in Texas.

"We've got the Final Four and the Super Bowl coming to Texas," Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, told NPR.

Hammond added that he had little doubt the state would lose both events if the Legislature followed Indiana's suit. And that would just be the beginning of the trouble the law would cause them, he said.

Hammond, who is one of the best lobbyists in the state, was clearly satisfied that the bill never made it out of committee. But Texas liberals warn that the Legislature shouldn't be too sure it will dodge the bullets if it goes ahead and passes the two bills before it.

Kathy Miller, president of the left-leaning group The Texas Freedom Network, said most Americans don't think it's OK to discriminate against people who are gay.

She warned that if Republican legislators insist, as she sees it, on rubbing the pro-same-sex-marriage crowd's noses in a never-ending parade of anti-gay legislation and discrimination, eventually they'll regret it.

Both Estes' and Bell's bills have yet to pass the more moderate Texas House of Representatives. That will be Texas liberals' last hope, that some of the more moderate House Republican leaders will take up the cause.

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And we go now to Texas, where bills dealing with religion and same-sex marriage are being debated in the state legislature. One measure, which has passed the Texas Senate, aims to protect pastors who refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies. While this and other bills are controversial, they don't go as far as many conservatives would like. NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports that's because big business got involved.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: There's been a raft of more than 20 anti-same-sex marriage bills that had been offered during this 84th section of the Texas legislature, but only two have come this far. Senator Craig Estes from Wichita Falls sponsored the bill extending certain legal protections to the clergy.

CRAIG ESTES: Clergyman came from all over the state to talk about this, and we want to make sure that they're not ever coerced into performing a marriage ceremony that would violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs.

GOODWYN: Critics of Estes's bill say the clergy are already protected by the division between church and state codified in the Texas Constitution. But Estes said he wanted to firm-up the legal language.

ESTES: There's really no place in Texas law where we specifically state - make this issue clear, and so I thought that was important for us to do that.

GOODWYN: Much of this is inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming decision on gay marriage expected in June. From the floor of the Texas House, Representative Cecil Bell has a bill that would bar state and local officials from issuing or recognizing same-sex marriages, which they already are barred from doing by Texas law and state Constitution, so really this is about the U.S. Supreme Court decision. Representative Cecil Bell.

CECIL BELL: House Bill 4105 asserts the sovereignty of the state to define and regulate marriage - that where the federal government clearly has no domain that those issues as our Constitution provides for be reserved by the states and by the people.

GOODWYN: In practice, these bills may do little legally. The one bill that would've advanced the anti-gay marriage agenda was a bill called the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It was modeled on the law that caused such a ruckus in Indiana.

BILL HAMMOND: That legislation is dead.

GOODWYN: Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business, which includes some of the most politically powerful millionaires and billionaires in the state. On behalf of his members, Hammond worked to make sure that bill, which would've allowed widespread discrimination against gay couples based on religious convictions, never made it out of committee.

HAMMOND: Texas is scheduled to have the Final Four and the Super Bowl in the coming years. We believed that both of those events would've been withdrawn from Texas.

GOODWYN: If Texas politicians can afford to legislate with their base in mind, Texas business cannot. Texas business is international in scope and so cares deeply about how the state is perceived around the country. But Kathy Miller, president of the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network, warns that it's more than just the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that's bad for business, that even these milder anti-gay marriage bills give Texas a bad name.

KATHY MILLER: The backlash came from discrimination, not just from religion being used as a mechanism for that discrimination. So I fear that our legislature may be being very shortsighted in thinking that they have dodged the backlash bullet.

GOODWYN: Neither of these bills are law yet. Both must pass the more moderate Texas House of Representatives, where some of the right's most strident legislation this session has gone to die. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.