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85th TX Lege

Religious Leaders Turn to Debate Over Texas “Bathroom Bill”

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

Religious leaders are stepping into the contentious debate in Texas over the proposed “bathroom bill,” looking to assert their influence in a discussion that until now has been largely shaped by the business lobby and LGBT advocates. 

It was evident Thursday at meetings at two churches in Austin. In one, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bill’s biggest champion, privately huddled with a group of pastors about supporting Senate Bill 6. At another, various faith leaders gathered before reporters to express opposition to it. 

The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex.” The bill has drawn national attention following the fallout in North Carolina, which last year passed a similar measure, prompting charges of discrimination and some economic consequences including the NBA pulling an All-Star Game from the state, the NCAA moving some championship games and some performers canceling concerts. 

Patrick frequently compares the battle over Senate Bill 6 to the fight surrounding Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which voters defeated in 2015 amid similar claims about men entering women’s bathrooms. The religious community was most prominently drawn into the HERO debate when then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who opposed the ordinance. 

A number of people involved in that fight made the trip to Hyde Park Baptist Church Thursday to hear about Senate Bill 6 at an event organized by the conservative Texas Pastor Council. The turnout for the closed-press briefing included Patrick; Attorney General Ken Paxton; state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who authored the bill; state Sen. Bob Hall, an Edgewood Republican who coauthored the legislation; and Rafael Cruz, the preacher father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.  

“Fundamentally, first and foremost, this is a moral question,” said Rev. Dave Welch, a spokesman for the Texas Pastor Council. “Should we protect the privacy and safety of our women and children? It’s profound that we’re even asking the question.”  

As the briefing got underway, about 50 protesters were gathered near the entrance, greeting pastors as they trickled in. One person, dressed up as the prophet Moses, held two signs surrounding his gray-bearded face that together read, “LET MY PEOPLE GO TO THE BATHROOM.”  

Another place of worship across the street, Trinity United Methodist Church, seemed to be aware of the event. “RELIGION IS NO REASON TO DISCRIMINATE,” read a sign out front. Below the sign was a table with coffee, apparently for the protesters.  

A coalition of faith leaders, including several reverends and a rabbi, offered a similar message Thursday at a press conference at First United Methodist Church near the Capitol, aiming to equate the “bathroom bill” and additional anti-LGBT measures filed this session to discriminatory acts that run contrary to their religions’ values. 

“Today, there is a systematic effort underway to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens in this state,” said Taylor Fuerst, a pastor at First United Methodist Church. “When such an injustice is done in the name of religion … faith leaders and people of faith cannot be silent. Our faith, our god calls us to stand up and speak out, and that’s why we’re here today.”  

Fuerst also drew a parallel to the HERO debate and the current one over SB 6. 

“They found what worked in Houston was to galvanize a certain branch of the faith community behind defeating [HERO] by using fear,” Fuerst said. “Those who are working for the passage of SB 6 and similar legislation found that approach worked and said, ‘Hey, we can use that.'” 

The religious community had already entered the picture earlier this week, when Episcopal Church leaders suggested they could pull their triennial General Convention from Austin next year. In a letter Monday to House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who has expressed deep reservations about SB 6, the leaders wrote they are “firmly opposed to this legislation and condemn its discriminatory intent.”  

After his closed-door briefing with pastors early Thursday, Patrick addressed the Texas Business Leadership Council‘s policy summit in downtown Austin. He did not respond to a reporter when asked what he had discussed with the pastors hours earlier. But in his remarks to the business group, Patrick continued to push SB 6, predicting there would be an “exodus from our public schools” if it doesn’t become law. 

“We’re telling businesses do what you want — do what you want to do,” Patrick said, apparently referring to a bill provision that backers say would allow private businesses to set their own bathroom policy. “I’ve seen a long list of businesses opposing this bill, but I haven’t seen a long list of businesses saying, ‘Next week we’re going to start allowing men into the ladies bathroom in our restaurant, in our school.'”  

“Let’s see them stand up and say, ‘We actually support boys and girls using the shower in the 10th grade,'” Patrick added.   

Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Business Leadership Council has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Rev. S. David Wynn of Fort Worth, who identifies as a transgender male, speaks at a press conference of the Texas Believes coalition on Feb. 9, 2017. Wynn and other faith leaders from around the state gathered in Austin to help combat anti-LGBT discrimination bills proposed in the 85th Legislature. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich / Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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85th TX Lege

The Texas Bathroom Bill Saga in 5 minutes (WATCH)

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

From Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s announcement last summer that he would push for a bathroom bill to the bill’s quite demise this month in the special session, this video will take you through the story of the intense political fight in 5 minutes.

Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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85th TX Lege

After Months of Controversy, Texas Bathroom Bill Dies Quietly

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

In the end, the controversial bathroom bill went quietly.

For more than a year, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led the crusade for a state law to regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans — an initiative that resonated with social conservatives, including many pastors, who backed him up. Patrick for months stood firm in his pursuit for a bathroom bill even while similar campaigns in other states fizzled out.

He was met by loud opposition that only grew with time and eventually proved to be a considerable political force.

Transgender women, men and children from across Texas descended on the Capitol to testify about how the proposal — which would ban local policies that ensured transgender individuals’ right to use public and school restrooms that match their gender identity — could endanger their lives. The business community rallied against the legislation too, giving House Speaker Joe Straus cover as he refused to negotiate with Patrick on bathroom restrictions.

That led to a stalemate over the issue during the regular legislative session that played out in dueling press conferences featuring legislative leaders slamming each other over the issue, threats by Patrick to force lawmakers to return to Austin by holding must-pass bills hostage and last-ditch efforts to attach bathroom restrictions to other pieces of legislation considered in the middle of the night.

Gov. Greg Abbott was eventually forced to call a 30-day special session that revived the bathroom bill. But for all the bathroom-related commotion and cajoling that dominated the regular legislative session, when lawmakers wrapped up the special session on Tuesday, Patrick eulogized the bathroom bill as just one of several proposals that didn’t make it to Abbott’s desk because of Straus.

And in the end, it wasn’t all that hard to see it coming.

Shifting momentum

“We hope that this time, this issue remains settled: Texans don’t want harmful, anti-transgender legislation,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said as opponents of the bathroom bill seemed to release a collective sigh of relief when the House abruptly adjourned to end the special session Tuesday evening.

Opponents had been anxiously watching the clock tick down on the 30 days lawmakers were allotted to pass Abbott’s 20-item agenda.

But giving lawmakers a second shot to pass a bathroom bill only seemed to further shift momentum against the legislation as the debate stretched into the summer.

Little had changed for Straus — often a less-vocal foil to some of Patrick’s priorities — who seemed to dig in his heels, arguing that the legislation would have dire economic and moral costs for Texas.

With the national debate over North Carolina’s bathroom still lingering, he was backed up by top business executives, including the heads of dozens of Fortune 500 companies, who worried that Texas could invite the same economic blows the Tar Heel State faced after passing a similar bill, including canceled corporate expansions and sports tournaments.

They called Abbott to express their displeasure and launched a flurry of letters warning about the harm that laws deemed discriminatory toward the LGBT community could cause.

The opposition grew to also include school districts, tourism officials, faith leaders and law enforcement officials.

“Everybody realized the issue really wasn’t going to be resolved without everybody being heard,” said Jeff Moseley, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, who was among those who spearheaded the business opposition.

Lost support

With the opposition growing louder outside the Capitol — eventually including major GOP donors and even Abbott’s campaign treasurer — the bathroom bill’s quiet death march inside the pink dome moved forward.

Within a week of returning to Austin for the special session, the Senate slogged through an 11-hour committee hearing and an eight-hour floor debate ending with a vote to advance the revived bathroom bill.

But it was almost immediately bottled up in the House, where Straus refused to refer it to a committee for consideration. Two other proposals that originated in the House were referred to committee but never got a hearing.

Support for the House bill seemed to drop as the special session began. Eighty Republicans had signed on as co-authors during the regular session — proponents of the bill regularly touted that number as they criticized Straus for keeping the bathroom bill from getting a House vote — but in the special session the number of co-authors dropped to 60.

“Some people were listening,” Lou Weaver, transgender programs coordinator for Equality Texas, said of the drop in co-authors. “Whether it was to the trans communities, to our allies, to our advocates, the business community, faith leaders — whatever the case may be, they did switch.”

Meanwhile, House leadership faced little opposition from proponents of the bathroom bill as they quietly worked to keep bathroom restrictions from being tacked on to key education bills that were moving through the chamber by limiting the amendments lawmakers could propose when those bills reached the House floor.

Across the rotunda, rumors that the Senate was planning to attach the bathroom restrictions to education bills proved unfounded.

By last week, proponents were already conceding that Texas wouldn’t pass a bathroom bill. Republican state Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton, the legislation’s author, on Monday acknowledged that he had not recently talked about his proposals with the governor.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the bathroom bill’s demise.

According to those familiar with the negotiations, the measure was not even a factor as the House and Senate worked to hash out their differences over what emerged as the final sticking points of the special session: school finance and property tax legislation.

By then, some Capitol insiders had shifted focus to whether a second failed attempt would finally mark the end of the legislative debate.

“That’s the question: Is that the end of the bathroom bill?” said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist.

Fight isn’t over

LGBT advocates and their allies said they’re hopeful there’s been a shift in the debate, explaining that the prolonged fight at the Capitol gave them the opportunity to explain to leaders why proposals like the bathroom bill were discriminatory and dangerous.

But they admit the fight likely isn’t over.

During a late-night press conference on Tuesday, Patrick recounted a one-on-one meeting in which he urged Straus to pass a bathroom bill and “put this issue in the rearview mirror” because it wasn’t going away.

He was echoed earlier in the week by conservative groups that said they would urge the governor to bring lawmakers back for another special session to reconsider the issue.

Abbott has yet to rule out a second special session, but he did acknowledge during a Wednesday morning interview that “there’s no evidence whatsoever” that Straus will be swayed on the issue.

For his part, the speaker has so far only put out a short statement marking the end of the special session that focused on the House’s work to pass legislation “that was in the best interest of all Texans.” It didn’t mention the bathroom bill.

“The House was thoughtful, respectful and decisive in its solution-oriented approach,” Straus said.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and Equality Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Members of various faith communities met at the Texas Capitol on Aug. 1 to speak out against the “bathroom bill.” / photo credit: Austin Price / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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85th TX Lege

Texas House Closes Out Special Legislative Session

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

The special legislative session is over — in one chamber, at least.  

The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday evening after approving the Senate’s version of a school finance bill that largely stripped provisions the chamber had fought to keep

Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back for a special session on July 18. Special sessions can last for up to 30 days, which gave both chambers til Wednesday to work. 

The House’s move came after days of difficult negotiations with the Senate on school finance and property tax bills — and leaves the fate of the latter in question.  

House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen had been expected to appoint members to a conference committee Tuesday so that the two chambers could reconcile their versions of the bill. 

But instead, shortly before the surprise motion to Sine Die, the Angleton Republican made an announcement. 

“I have been working with members of the Senate for several days on SB 1, we have made our efforts, so I don’t want there to be in any way a suggestion that we have not, will not, would not work with the Senate on such an important issue,” he said.  

Then he said he had not appointed a conference committee because he was “trying to keep the bill alive.” 

“If we appointed conferees now, it would kill the bill because there is not enough time,” he said, explaining that under House rules, there would not be enough time left in the session to issue a conference committee report and have the chamber vote on it. 

Bonnen’s announcement came after a vote on a school finance measure in which House members expressed deep disappointment —and  anger — that the bill they had sent to the Senate with $1.8 billion in funding for schools had come back with only $352 million. Some demanded that the House send the measure back. 

“I’d tell the Senate to take back this crap and fix it,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, adding that she did not like “being bullied.” The House ultimately approved the changes to the bill, sending it to the governor’s desk. 

While House lawmakers didn’t get their way with school finance, by adjourning Tuesday night, they have forced the Senate to either accept their version of the property tax bill or let it die. Supporters hope to require larger local governments get voter approval when they want to increase tax collections on existing buildings and land above a certain threshold. A key point of contention: whether that threshold should be at the 6 percent preferred by the House or the 4 percent preferred by the Senate. 

Both Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott have said property tax reform is their top priority for the session. At the time the House adjourned sine die, Abbott was on track to claim victory on nine of the 20 items he had put on the special session call. As of Tuesday afternoon, he had signed five of them into law, and four more were on their way to his desk. 

Patrick forced the special session by holding hostage a bill needed to prevent the shuttering of some state agencies during the regular session in May. At the time, he said he was doing so in order to push the House to move on two pieces of legislation: one that would regulate bathroom use for transgender Texans and another that would set new thresholds for when cities and counties must get voter approval for their property tax rates. 

Just as during the regular session, the House never took a vote on a “bathroom bill” during the special session. 

The Senate is set to reconvene at 8:45 pm on Tuesday night. 

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting to this story. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: The Texas House abruptly gaveled out Sine Die – the formal designation meaning the end of a session – on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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