As the Texas legislative session comes to its final days, far-right religious zealots are benefiting from a national media focused like a laser beam on the widening crisis surrounding the Trump presidency.
Anti-LGBTQ Republican legislators in Texas ― who have the full backing of GOP Governor Greg Abbott ― are also now using a stealth strategy, adding discriminatory amendments to must-pass legislation pertaining to agencies regulating nurses, lawyers, pharmacists and public schools rather than pushing broad-based “religious liberty” bills that garner a lot of attention. (Many of those kinds of bills ― an “avalanche” of them this year, which I wrote about back in March ― were successfully beaten back by Democrats or look like they’re in trouble.)
The results of this under-the-radar approach, by the end of this session on May 29 (though there’s always the chance of an extension with a special session), may be laws which will allow medical professionals to deny care to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people and emergency contraception for rape survivors, while allowing pharmacists to deny birth control to women and hormone therapy to trans people. And there’s the very real possibility of a heinous transgender “bathroom” law pertaining to public schools, allowing discrimination against trans students.
One sweeping bill that has received a fair amount of national media attention, HB 3859, would allow state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to turn away applicants on religious grounds, denying parents who are LGBT, or even those who are Jewish, Muslim or atheist. Having passed the Texas House in early May, it passed the Senate Sunday night and the governor is expected to sign it. Similar bills have passed in other states, including in South Dakota this year.
Getting less attention, however, are the insidious attempts to write discrimination into must-pass bills that have already been debated. An amendment added at the last minute to a nursing care bill, HB 2950, for example, would bar the Texas Board of Nursing from punishing discriminatory actions if they are committed in the service of a nurse’s “religious beliefs.” According to the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a watchdog and activist group, a nurse could “cite his religious beliefs as a reason to refuse to care for a gay patient on the grounds that he believes homosexuality is a sin” or is against his faith. “A nurse who believes that men are the head of the household,” the group also notes, “could breach client confidentiality to disclose a woman’s medical condition to her husband against her wishes.”
One sweeping bill would allow state-funded adoption and foster care agencies to turn away applicants on religious grounds, denying parents who are LGBT.
On Sunday night, after many LGBT advocates and Democrats thought a transgender “bathroom” bill introduced in March by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was dead, Patrick forced an amendment restricting rest room access for trans students in public schools, adding it to SB 2078, a bill focused on emergency operations plans in schools. It passed and heads to the Senate for a vote. Patrick threatened to have the governor call a special session unless the amendment was added, causing the rest of the GOP, which dominates the legislature, to cave.
Under an amendment added to HB 2561, a pharmacy services regulatory bill, pharmacists could opt-out of the practices that are standard among pharmacists across the country, based on personal religious convictions. A pharmacist could decide not to fill a prescription for hormone therapy for a transgender customer, claiming doing so goes against his or her religious beliefs about gender. Or, in another example TFN offers, a “pharmacist could use religion as a justification to refuse to serve African-American customers because she believes the Bible mandates the segregation of the races.”
And two bills that would regulate legal services, SB 302 and SB 303, now have amendments which allow for religious refusal by state-licensed attorneys. If these bills become law with these amendments an attorney could deny his or her duty to inform a client about his or her rights in a divorce proceeding, for example, even trying to talk the client out of getting a divorce, all based on the attorney’s religious objection to divorce.
A pharmacist could decide not to fill a prescription for hormone therapy for a transgender customer, claiming doing so goes against his or her religious beliefs about gender.
It’s not difficult to imagine the far-reaching implications of these amendments and bills for LGBTQ people and many others if they become law. Yet, with so little attention on them, especially outside of Texas, a lot can happen under the radar very quickly. We’ve seen this many times before when draconian anti-LGBTQ laws were passed. With little media attention, Mississippi, in 2014, and Arkansas, in 2015, passed profoundly anti-LGBTQ laws, while equally heinous laws in Arizona, in 2014, and in Indiana in 2015, received a great deal of national attention and were softened or thwarted completely.
So, even in the the face of the tremendous danger of Donald Trump and his reckless presidency ― and the rightful focus on it by the national media ― we must sound the alarm, as loudly as we can, about what’s happening in Texas in the last days of the current legislative session.
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