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Texas Religious Liberty Bill, Condemned As Anti-LGBTQ, Moves Closer To Governor's Desk

Ryan Poppe | Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio

The Texas Senate bill bans any governmental entity from punishing a private business for its past donations to religious organizations. Critics condemned it as a new version of the 2017 bathroom bill or as a reaffirmation that the state is hostile to LGBTQ people.

The bill resulted from a controversial decision by the City of San Antonio prohibiting Paradies Lagadère, a concessions operator for the airport, from including Chick-fil-A in its concession plan because of the restaurant chain's past donations to religious organizations that supported an anti-LGBTQ agenda.

The Senate bill, sponsored in the House by Fort Worth Republican Matt Krause, would ban any governmental entity from denying an individual or business a contract, tax-free status or license based on past religious affiliations.

“The San Antonio City Council refused to extend a contract to Chick-Fil-A, because they had given charitable contributions to groups that they did not agree with.” Krause said.

Republicans said the bill would protect religious freedoms. Democrats like Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia see the bill as a version of the 2017’s bathroom bill.

“This is like a mini-bathroom bill that moving forward today. It gives space to people who want to discriminate based on orientation–identity,” Anchia said.

Austin Democrat Cecilia Israel said the bill also reaffirms Texas can be a hostile place to gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual people. Israel is a member of House’s inaugural LGBTQ-caucus.

“How have we made Texas better by today?" she asked. "If you’re my colleague, I can’t look you in the eye because I’m working around a political posturing bill that doesn’t help anyone except these fringe groups that fundraise off this stuff.”

She said businesses can now donate to organizations that have an anti-LGBTQ agenda and not face any consequences.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular song," she said, "and I may be the first person to quote Lady Gaga on the House floor, 'I’m beautiful in my own way because God makes no mistakes.' "

The bill was approved on a vote of 79 to 62 on Monday. It had one more formal vote on Tuesday. Then, Senate lawmakers will take one more look at it before sending it to the governor’s desk.

The bill has both the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Senate and Speaker Dennis Bonnen in the House.

The Council's Decision

In mid-March, the San Antonio City Council passed the amendment 6 to 4 to prohibit a concessions operator from including Chick-fil-A in its airport concession plan.

Before the vote, District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino said Chick-fil-A demonstrated a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.

Councilmembers John Courage, Clayton Perry, Greg Brockhouse and Art Hall voted against the amendment. Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran abstained from voting.

The move drew praise from members of the LGBTQ community but harsh criticism from conservative public figures like Senator Ted Cruz.

In late March, the Texas attorney general informed San Antonio's mayor and city council that his office would investigate the city's decision.

In a letter to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and council members, Ken Paxton wrote, “The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken.”

“The City of San Antonio’s decision to exclude a respected vendor based on the religious beliefs associated with that company and its owners is the opposite of tolerance,” Paxton said in a statement. “The city’s discriminatory decision is not only out of step with Texas values, but inconsistent with the Constitution and Texas law."

Paxton also sent a letter to Elaine Chao, U.S. transportation secretary, to investigate if San Antonio's decision possibly violated federal law and Transportation Department rules.

First Liberty, a Dallas-based law firm, sent a similar letter to Chao, also asking the department to investigate if the city violated “federal law protecting religious liberty.” The firm alleged the City Council's decision made the city ineligible for federal grants.

In a statement at the time, Nirenberg said the city attorney’s office was reviewing the letter.

The Decision Stands

In mid-April, Greg Brockhouse, District 6 city councilman and the challenger to Nirenberg in June 8's mayoral runoff election, made a motion to place the decision on the council's agenda in early May. The City Council voted 6 to 5 not to revisit its decision.

Nirenberg said any company that followed the law was welcome in San Antonio. Brockhouse asked who the council would exclude next because of their beliefs.

On the day of that vote, the council chambers were full of representatives of both liberal and conservative organizations hoping the council would reconsider the decision.

Beth Guinn identified herself as part of the LGBTQ community. “I’m deeply concerned," she said. "I see this as a violation of Title VII. I feel like Chick-fil-A was discriminated against because of their faith-based belief.”

Ed Newton, the pastor of Community Bible Church, agreed with Guinn. “This conversation is bigger than Chick-fil-A," he said. "The bigger conversation is that ... any individual, any organization would not be vilified based on their particular belief.”

Ryan Tucker was an attorney for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defending Freedom. The organization successfully argued the 2017 Supreme Court case that a Colorado cake baker was within his rights because of his religious beliefs to refuse to create a wedding cake for a gay couple.

He said the city council’s vote to stand by its decision was different. “The concern I think everyone should have is that if the government can pick and choose which viewpoints it prefers," he said, "one day is one view, another day it’s something else. So I think this should really be concerning to everyone in the marketplace.”

The Political Fight

During an April mayoral debate between Nirenberg and Brockhouse and hosted by the several of the city's hospitality groups, Nirenberg said his vote wasn’t based on the company’s donations but instead on the fact the restaurant is closed on Sundays, which he said is one of the airport’s busiest days.

“I have no qualms with the Chick-Fil-A faith-based business model, nor do I care about who they donate to," he said. “But the truth of the matter is when we make a decision we have to make it in the best interest of the city, of the airport, and the passengers we serve. And to make sure that we have local [businesses] and open seven days in a week in an airport that is running seven days a week is critically important to me, and that’s how I voted.”

Ryan Poppe can be reached at RPoppe@TPR.org and on Twitter at @RyanPoppe1. Joey Palacios and Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.

Ryan started his radio career in 2002 working for Austin’s News Radio KLBJ-AM as a show producer for the station's organic gardening shows. This slowly evolved into a role as the morning show producer and later as the group’s executive producer.