Texas bills seek further privilege for the religious, entangle religion and government

You’re undoubtedly aware that the Texas State Legislature is busy churning out bills left and right to entangle religion and government. This is a heads up on some of that legislation, and what you can do about it. We are asking for action from you on the first two bills summarized below.

Bill to legalize religious discrimination

Do you remember the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision that allowed for-profit corporations to exercise their so-called “religious conscience” in order to restrict employees’ access to contraceptives? Have you been watching the legal battles over cake decorators and municipal clerks who want to be able to discriminate against gay couples in the name of “religious freedom?” Now a bill has been introduced in your state that would afford legal protection to any person (or corporation) who chooses to discriminate or otherwise break the law in the name of their personal religion. This is one of many Texas bills introduced this legislative session that would disproportionately privilege the religious.

House Joint Resolution 55 would add language to the state constitution similar to the problematic federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Texas’ proposed bill essentially would tie the state’s hands, nullifying any neutral, generally applicable law that conflicts with a person’s or corporation’s religious beliefs. The only exception would be where it could be shown that law is “necessary to further a compelling governmental interest” and is “the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” This is an extremely high bar for a law to meet, especially as religious groups increasingly use the cry of “religious persecution” to further their political agendas.

The bill was introduced in December and thankfully hasn’t received further attention from the House. But given that similar RFRA bills have seen movement in Arkansas, Michigan, South Dakota, and Wyoming, this bill could be taken up at any time. Please take prompt action and watch for developments.

Bill to create In God We Trust license plates

House Bill 315 would require the Department of Transportation to issue specially made “In God We Trust” license plates. The bill requires the proceeds from plate sales to go to the Texas Veterans Commission, because obviously they’ve never heard of “atheists in foxholes” and all veterans must trust in God. This bill was referred to the Committee on Transportation on Feb, 11. If you currently or formerly served in the military, please be sure to contact the members of the Committee to voice your opposition to this bill!

Bill introduced to put Ten Commandments in classrooms

House Bill 138 would prevent a school board from prohibiting the posting of the Ten Commandments “in a prominent location in a district classroom.” This bill would place school districts in an impossible position where they would have to choose between violating the new state law, or violating well-established constitutional principles. The Supreme Court has spoken on this issue, and ruled that the Ten Commandments cannot be posted in public schools. Costly litigation is likely to follow, siphoning away precious school district money that should be used to educate (not proselytize) students. HB 138 has been assigned to the Committee on Public Education, where hopefully it will die, if legislators can collectively ignore the cries of Christian persecution. (Read more on “What’s Wrong with the Ten Commandments.”)

Bills to let churches politick, etc.

House Joint Resolution 65 would amend the Texas State Constitution to declare that state government cannot interfere with political speech made by a religious leader in a church. State law, of course, cannot override federal law, which prohibits any political activity by tax-exempt religious organizations and churches. The bill would also prevent schools from interfering with students’ voluntary religious expressions at school events, such as graduations. This provision would muddy already ample protections afforded to student speech under the federal Constitution.

Similarly, HJR 32 would add a completely redundant provision to the Texas Constitution, telling courts that they cannot engage in religious doctrinal interpretation. Since this is already a well-established legal principal, this entire bill is nothing more than shameless pandering to religious constituents.

Pro-prayer, God resolution

When it comes to religious pandering, House Concurrent Resolution 30 is far and away the worst. This proposed resolution, which would have no legal effect but would set injurious tone and precedent, declares the legislature’s support for prayers that reference “God” at public gatherings and for the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools and other government buildings. The resolution begins by declaring that the Ten Commandments had a significant impact “on the development of the legal principles of western civilization,” a claim which is thoroughly untrue. It also makes the ahistorical claim that the “founding fathers believed devoutly that there was a God.” Revealingly, the bill suggests that Republicans have a mandate to fuse religion and politics, thanks to the overwhelming support for the “public acknowledgement of God” by Republican primary voters.

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