AUSTIN, Texas — The national debate over religious objection laws roiled again Thursday in Texas after Republican lawmakers abruptly pushed a new proposal on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing historic arguments over gay marriage.
Even advocates for same-sex couples say the bill, aimed at allowing clergy members to refuse officiating marriages that violate their beliefs, largely duplicates protections that already exist.
However, the legislation drew attention because of its timing – weeks after filing deadlines had passed in the Texas Senate and on the same day the landmark gay marriage case was heard in Washington.
Republican state Sen. Craig Estes said the timing of the bill he introduced Tuesday was coincidental, but that didn’t calm Democrats who felt blindsided and newly bracing for battle.
“It’s like equivalent of giving the legislative middle finger,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said.
It threatened to break a relative calm in the Texas Legislature over proposals that gay rights activists say would invite discrimination. Unlike in Indiana and Arkansas, where religious objection laws for businesses created sweeping backlash, Texas has largely sidelined such contentious measures.
But a big difference now is the muscle behind the clergy bill: new Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose office holds considerable power in Texas. Patrick, a firebrand tea party leader, asked Estes to carry the proposal with a month remaining in the 140-day session.
Article continues belowA hearing scheduled for Thursday was temporarily delayed after Democrats objected to the short notice. Estes said the bill should not be controversial.
“We’re not talking about the caterer, the flower arranger, we’re talking about the minister,” Estes said. “Ministers should have the right to uphold their religious beliefs.”