How the Texas GOP Uses “Religious Freedom” to Discriminate Against LGBT Texans

In a clear signal of what lies ahead for the fight for LGBTQ equality in Texas, last month a state Senate committee held an interim hearing on so-called “religious freedom.” And more specifically, on Texas Republican plans to legislate discrimination under the false banner of religion. The hearing came on the heels of the release of two new reports: one confirming that the majority of Texans favor passing equal rights protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and another exposing the anti-LGBT hate groups behind these legislative campaigns that masquerade discrimination as “religious liberty.”

Not to be outdone by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick who called for the anti-LGBT hearing, on Thursday, indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the hiring of Jeff Mateer as his first assistant. Mateer was previously employed as general counsel with the Texas-based, anti-LGBT group Liberty Institute, a legal firm that bills itself as fighting for “religious liberty.” The Liberty Institute works in tandem with other anti-LGBT groups to upend equal rights protections by defending people who falsely claim to have been hurt by these laws, using the myth of religious persecution to deny LGBT people full equality. 

GOP hearing on using religion as weapon to discriminate against LGBT Texans

Billed as an examination of “religious liberty protections” and the relationship between local ordinances and state and federal law, the majority of the nearly four-hour long State Affairs Committee hearing was spent discussing how lawmakers could use “religious freedom” to legislate discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Texans, trample on local equal rights protections, and circumvent marriage equality.

Testifies after testifer — which included representatives of religious-right, anti-LGBT groups Texas Values and Texas Eagle Forum — outlined their case for why their religious beliefs should give them the special privilege of not complying laws that protect LGBT Texans from discrimination, from local ordinances to the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling.

Texas hate group part of national effort to use religion as weapon to discriminate

A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) exposes the nationwide campaign launched by hyper-influential, right-wing groups to attack LGBT equality in the name of religious freedom, primarily by lobbying for and litigating through so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) laws. The report underscores just how dangerous these RFRA laws are:

“Religious liberty is a cherished constitutional value, enshrined in the First Amendment. But, as earlier efforts to offer biblical justification for slavery and Jim Crow segregation have taught us, religious liberty should not be used as an excuse to discriminate.

The danger of these laws goes far beyond the way in which courts may ultimately balance them with statutory and constitutional protections against discrimination. The peril also lies in the atmosphere of bigotry and discrimination that will be created by legitimizing the very idea that LGBT rights threaten religious liberty”

The report profiles 6 national groups — the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Family Association, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, and the Liberty Counsel — yet also emphasizes that these groups operate with networks of state and local groups.

Among those state-level groups in Texas is Conservative Republicans of Texas — helmed by the notoriously unhinged Steven Hotze. In its most recent annual report, SPLC added Hotze’s group to its list anti-LGBT hate groups. Hotze was a leader in the campaign to repeal Houston’s equal rights ordinance. In an interview with John Wright of the Texas Observer, SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok explained why Hotze’s group made the cut:

“What we look at in the anti-LGBT groups is primarily the use of lies, of falsehoods, that have the effect of demonizing gay people. So, it’s not merely that they opposed the HERO ordinance; it’s the way in which they did it — the description of gay people as pedophiles and so on.”

Most Texans favor equal rights protections

These hate groups — and the Texas elected officials that do their bidding — are totally out of step with the rest of the country and state. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the vast majority of Texans — 67% — support laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people from being discriminated against for who they are. A majority of Texans also oppose allowing businesses to use their religious beliefs to refuse service to LGBT people.