WASHINGTON ― Texas lawmakers have a history of finding ways to get around landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions. They tested Roe v. Wade by dramatically restricting abortion rights in the state, shuttering abortion clinics and forcing women to drive hundreds of miles to reach an abortion provider.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of marriage equality, Texas Republicans are trying a similar strategy to chip away at LGBTQ rights. This legislative session, they’ve introduced at least two dozen bills that advocates say target LGBTQ people for discrimination. And what happens in Texas doesn’t always stay in Texas.
“Often, the far-right strategies in Texas are exported to other states,” Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a progressive activist group, told reporters on Monday. “We’re kind of a testing ground or a petri dish for extremist political strategies.”
That’s a grim forecast for progressives who have watched conservatives rewrite abortion laws across the United States, effectively winning what activists call the “war on women.” The Supreme Court struck down abortion restrictions in Texas last year —but that didn’t stop state lawmakers from introducing dozens of new anti-abortion bills this session.
The wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation also covers a lot of ground. One bill would permit wedding photographers, caterers and DJs to deny services to same-sex couples. Another would allow student clubs at public universities to deny membership to LGBTQ people. Other bills protect faith-based groups that use taxpayer dollars and discriminate against LGBTQ couples when providing foster care services.
The 85th legislative session has “chosen to declare war on transgender Texans,” Lauryn Farris, Alamo regional coordinator for the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told reporters on Monday. “As a result, all of us feel threatened by the very people we elected to protected us.”
Texas Republicans claim their bills are about protecting religious freedom. And in the same way some anti-abortion bills are packaged as a way to protect women’s health, Texas conservatives have cited women’s safety as a reason to push legislation banning transgender people from using some bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
“If laws ... allow men to go into a bathroom because of the way they feel, we will not be able to stop sexual predators from taking advantage of that law, like sexual predators take advantage of the internet,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) has argued. (CNN surveyed 20 law enforcement agencies in states that had anti-discrimination policies covering gender identity; none of those that replied reported subsequent bathroom assaults.)
The anti-transgender bill that Patrick calls the “women’s privacy act” — and which followed in the footsteps of the “bathroom bill” that sparked political backlash in North Carolina — has been a cause of concern for businesses. The NFL warned earlier this year that such a proposal could influence whether it decides to host future sporting events in Texas. And a study commissioned by Visit San Antonio and the San Antonio Area Tourism Council found that bathroom bills could cost the state $3.3 billion in annual tourism and more than 35,600 full-time jobs.
Another Texas bill introduced in March — which House Republicans hope will be more palatable to corporations — would ban local anti-discrimination protections, including voiding those that already exist. That language could apply to protections for veterans or pregnant women, The Dallas Morning News pointed out.
A revised version laid out before the House Committee on State Affairs last week, which was obtained by HuffPost, specifically bans “political subdivisions,” including public school districts, from enforcing an anti-discrimination ordinance that regulates access to restrooms, showers or changing facilities.
Texas Rep. Ron Simmons (R), who authored the bill, could not immediately be reached to comment on LGBTQ advocates’ concerns. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has called Simmons’ bill “a thoughtful proposal to make sure our children maintain privacy.”
But opponents of the bill include people like Rachel Gonzales, an activist and mother of a 7-year-old transgender girl. “My daughter has been surrounded by love and acceptance in both her home and school lives,” she told reporters on Monday. But she fears the bill will “remove my daughter’s school’s ability to keep her safe.”
She added, “These extremists are continuing to go after transgender people for political gain. We are tired of it and it is wrong.”
Cathryn Oakley, senior legislative counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights, added that “none of these bills are actually about bathrooms, they’re all about prejudice.”