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84th TX Lege

Gay Rights Activists Find Unlikely Ally in Republican

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Gay rights advocates fighting several uphill battles in the Legislature may have found an unusual ally on at least one front in a prominent Republican.

Corsicana state Rep. Byron Cook, one of the original Straus Republicans and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, has endorsed a bill that would clear the way for same-sex partners to both be listed as the adoptive parents of a child on Texas birth certificates.

Cook, who has an adopted child, said he supports the bill not as an endorsement of gay rights, but out of concern for the well-being of adopted children. But gay rights advocates and Democrats alike are celebrating his backing of the measure.

“This bill is not about gay rights issues. This is about children,” Cook told The Texas Tribune. “It really is a different issue from the way some of the folks have tried to frame it.”

Under current law, supplemental birth certificates used by adoptive parents only allow a man and woman to be listed as father and mother of a child. For same-sex couples who adopt, this means only one parent can be listed.

The bill Cook has backed, filed by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would remove the gender-specific language, which was added to supplemental birth certificates in 1997.

It is estimated that 9,191 same-sex couples in Texas are raising children, according the Williams Institute, a nonpartisan think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The fact of the matter is there are same-sex couples that adopt children, so we have to recognize the situation these children find themselves in with respect to the birth certificates,” Cook said, adding that the issue needed to be framed beyond a “gay rights issue” in the Legislature.

Cook first spoke positively about the bill during a March 18 committee hearing. Julie Drenner, a legislative analyst with the conservative group Texas Values, told the committee that removing the gender-specific language from the supplemental birth certificates would “open the door” to individuals in polygamous relationships being listed as adoptive parents of a child.

Cook told Drenner that he “struggled” with her opposition to the measure because of the high rates of adoption among same-sex couples at a time when Texas does not have enough parents willing to adopt. Oftentimes, same-sex couples adopt children with special needs that the “traditional community” is unwilling to adopt, Cook said.

“That’s a terrible indictment on one group to be real honest with you,” Cook told Drenner during the hearing.

In response to a comment made by Drenner that the Department of State Health Services would have to modify 20 forms if Anchia’s bill was passed, Cook replied, “So what?”

In an interview with the Tribune, Drenner said she was surprised by Cook’s support for the birth certificate measure, and thought his comments deviated from her testimony about the wider interpretation of who could be an adoptive parent under Anchia’s bill.

“His comments that there all these children out there that the traditional families weren’t adopting, I didn’t think was really in line,” Drenner said, adding that she expects Cook to call a committee vote on the bill.

For Anchia and gay rights advocates, Cook’s words during the hearing were cause for celebration. After the hearing, Anchia said he believed Cook had been “moved” by testimony from adopted children of same-sex couples.

“Chairman Cook is a big believer in adoption in the state of Texas and making sure that we get adopted children into loving family situations, and I think that’s what spoke to him about the hearing,” Anchia said.

Anchia has filed the measure for four consecutive legislative sessions, but it has died in committee the last three sessions. Under Cook’s stewardship in the state affairs committee, it could have a better chance this time of making it onto the House floor for a vote.

Daniel Williams, a legislative director for Equality Texas, described Cook as a statesman “who is absolutely committed to passing laws that help the state of Texas.” The birth certificate measure is a key component of the group’s legislative agenda to benefit lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

This is not the first time Cook has drawn attention for his position on contentious issues before the committee. In 2011, when it was considering a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities — cities that forbid local peace officers from enforcing federal immigration laws — Cook voiced his concerns about the bill and said he wanted to understand how it might affect young people for whom he said he has a “soft spot.”

Cook’s support for the birth certificate measure could put him at odds with members of his party who may be unwilling to support legislation that benefits same-sex couples.

At a time when Republicans are increasingly concerned about picking up primary challengers if they don’t stick to the Tea Party’s far-right ideological line, Cook, who was first elected in 2002, said conservatives should be focused on passing good policy rather than trying to get re-elected.

“We need to try to do what’s right for our state and for our constituents,” Cook said. “It’s an injustice to look at it from the perspective of what keeps me in office, what keeps me from having an opponent.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/03/21/gay-rights-activists-find-unlikely-ally-republican/.

Photo: Republican State Reps. Byron Cook (l), R-Corsicana, Burt Solomons (c), R-Carrollton, and Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, listen to a point of order on HB12 sanctuary cities bill on May 6, 2011. photo by: Bob Daemmrich

Alexa Ura covers demographics, voting rights and politics for The Texas Tribune, with a focus on the state's growing Hispanic population. She previously covered health care for the Tribune, where she started as in intern. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2013 with a journalism degree.

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84th TX Lege

Texas vs. Supreme Court

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A Texas bill to defy the Supreme Court‘s ruling on marriage died in the house last week but anti-gay politicians could find a sneaky way to revive it. Meanwhile the Attorney General of Texas refused to say if he will obey the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.

For the American Foundation for Equal Rights, I’m Matt Baume, and welcome to Marriage News Watch for May 18, 2015.

Legislators in Texas nearly passed a bill that will force the state to defy the Supreme Court last week but the deadline passed before they could hold a vote which means the bills off the table … for now. If it passed it would have withheld funding from government offices that obeyed a pro-equality ruling from the Supreme Court. That could never have withstood a lawsuit.

States simply don’t get to decide which Supreme Court rulings they want to follow. What’s scary is that an obviously unconstitutional bill even made it this far and may still come back. Bill sponsor Cecil Bell says that he might find a way to attach it to some other bill that’s still life so we’re not out of the woods yet.

And there’s another dangerous bill that did pass but it’s getting less attention. That’s SB 2065 which contains a hidden “Trojan horse” for discrimination. Supporters claim that the bill lets members of the clergy refused to conduct marriages that violate their conscience but if that were true there would be no need for the bill. Religious officials already have the freedom to refuse certain marriages.

What the bill actually does is extend that exemption to public officials with certain religious affiliations. So for example if the city hired a minister as Justice of the Peace then even though he’s serving in a government role he’d still be allowed to let his religious rules override the rules at his job. Couples could be turned away from government offices with no recourse.

The bill passed the Senate last week but missed its chance for a vote in the House but like the other bill it could always come back as an amendment. There are nearly two dozen anti-gay bills working their way through the Texas Legislature. Many like Cecil Bell attempt to defy the Supreme Court are clearly illegal, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says he’ll defend them any way. What’s more, Paxton refused to say whether he would obey Supreme Court orders to allow marriage equality in the state that could be setting up a showdown between the Supreme Court’s orders and the State of Texas’ refusal and it’s hard to say who would win.

Just kidding, the Supreme Court would win … eventually, but the last time there was a showdown like this it took some unpleasant work to sort it all out out.

Those are the headlines. Subscribe here on YouTube to stay up to date on all these marriage stories. For the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Matt Baume, thanks for watching and we’ll see you next week.

Source: YouTube: Texas vs. Supreme Court: May 18 MNW

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84th TX Lege

House Republicans Reaffirm Support of Gay Marriage Ban

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*Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout.  

House Republicans want Texans to know they still oppose same-sex marriage – even if foot-dragging Democrats thwarted a debate on the polarizing subject Thursday night.

The House Republican Caucus on Friday released a letter reaffirming its support of the state’s long-standing ban on gay marriage, calling marriage between a man and woman a “principle that is so dearly held by Texans far and wide.”

“This letter provides legislative support and a legal foundation for the Texas constitutional provision,” Kelly Carnal, executive director of the caucus, said in a statement.

[pdf-embedder url=”http://www.therepubliq.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/05.15.15_House_Republican_Letter.pdf”]
The letter was signed by 93 of the 98 House Republicans. Those who did not sign were: Sarah Davis of West University Place, Jason Villalba of Dallas, Matt Schaefer of Tyler, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock and Speaker Joe Straus.

As speaker, Straus doesn’t typically sign any such letters. Schaefer declined to sign the letter out of disappointment and frustration after the House failed to move a proposal aiming to protect the state’s marriage laws.

“I wanted action, not just words in the journal,” he said. “We need a loud clear message to ring in the ears of the Supreme Court that people believe in marriage, as God instituted it, around the country. But unfortunately, the headline will be, the Texas House failed to act.”

At midnight on Friday – the deadline for passing bills originating in the House – time ran out on House Bill 4105, which would have forbidden state or local governments from using public funds to issue same-sex marriage licenses. Rep. Cecil Bell’s legislation was meant to pre-empt a potential U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling paving the way for same-sex marriage nationwide.

Gay rights groups and legal scholars have criticized the bill as unconstitutional and outlandish.

Enough Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors to guarantee the bill’s passage had it reached the floor, and Democrats spent Thursday prolonging debate in an attempt to run down the clock and prevent Bell’s legislation from being heard — a practice called “chubbing.” They were ultimately successful.

But Schaefer said Republicans shared responsibility for the bill’s demise, because they placed it too low on the calendar.

“It should have been a priority and it wasn’t,” he said. “If issues we care about as conservatives are not heard in a chamber dominated by Republicans, you have nothing but Republicans to blame.”

Bell said he might not be done pushing his proposal this session, because he could still attach language as an amendment to a related Senate bill.

Bobby Blanchard and Eva Hershaw contributed to this report.

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]During the Defense of Texas Marriage Amendment Rally on Mar. 23, 2015 at the Texas Capitol, a protester raises questions of marriage sanctity noting celebrities who’ve been married multiple times. / photo credit: Bob Daemmrich

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/05/15/house-republicans-we-still-oppose-gay-marriage/[/gdlr_notification]

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84th TX Lege

In Gay Marriage Battle, the Clock Beats Cecil Bell

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When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, ruling it unconstitutional to deny federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, found himself agreeing with Justice Anthony Kennedy‘s majority opinion.

Some might find that surprising, considering that the sophomore lawmaker from southeast Texas is leading the fight against allowing gay marriage in the Texas. But while many take from Kennedy’s opinion a strong indication that the high court will rule in favor of same-sex marriage again this summer, Bell — who loves to read the wonk-beloved judicial news site SCOTUSBlog — interprets it a little differently.

Instead of sanctioning gay marriage, Bell believes, Kennedy’s ruling was primarily an affirmation of states’ rights to regulate marriage. If he’s correct, the court’s forthcoming decision on gay marriage may not be as earthshaking as some believe, leaving it to states to decide what to allow within their borders.

“I think Justice Kennedy was very clear — it was his basis in fact for striking down DOMA — it was the fact that marriage wasn’t a federal purview,” Bell said. “Justice Kennedy said in Windsor that it is the sovereign power of the separate states and the people to define and regulate marriage.”

Asserting states’ sovereign rights has been the main drive behind Bell’s arguments this session as he has fought same-sex marriage.

Bills he has authored this session would do everything from taking the ability to issue marriage licenses away from county clerks to stripping salaries from local or state employees who issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Bell’s strongest bid fell short Thursday night when House Bill 4105, a bill that would have forbidden state or local governments from using public funds to issue same-sex marriage licenses, failed to pass the House before midnight — the deadline for House bills.

Enough Republicans had signed on as co-sponsors to guarantee the bill’s passage had it reached the floor, and Democrats spent Thursday prolonging debate in an attempt to run down the clock and prevent Bell’s legislation from being heard — a practice called “chubbing.” They were ultimately successful.

While the bill is now dead, Bell is not out of moves. He could still attempt to attach an amendment to a related Senate bill.

“From my perspective, no bill is dead as long as there are are other bills in front. You just have to find something that’s germane,” Bell said after passage of the House deadline spawned hope among opponents that the measure is done with for this session. “The session still moves on.”

Throughout the session, gay rights groups and legal scholars have criticized Bell’s bills as unconstitutional and outlandish.

“This end-run play to subvert a Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, to which the state of Texas would be constitutionally bound, makes Texas a laughingstock and flies in the face of Texas values,” said Terri Burke, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

Chuck Smith, director of gay rights group Equality Texas, said the group has worked with other lawmakers in attempts to soften the legislation, but views lobbying Bell as a lost cause.

“We have not proactively tried to change Rep. Bell’s mind — I think he has been quite clear on where he’s coming from,” Smith said.

In an interview Thursday morning before the House convened, Bell said he believed his legislation was not a partisan issue — but he acknowledged the criticism aimed at it.

“When it first came out in the news, I think people wanted to see this bill as targeting a subset of our population — and I think that’s where a lot of the animosity towards the bill comes from,” Bell said.

Before joining the House, Bell served as school board president in Magnolia, a town of about 1,500 in southeast Montgomery County. He tells people he is a sixth-generation Texan, and that his family roots in America date back to 1751. Bell is proud of his Texas roots — he is known around the Capitol for his ever-present cowboy hats.

“Hats have a reason, they’re not just there for decoration,” Bell said. “I didn’t start wearing a hat when I decided to run for political office — if you go back and look at the earliest pictures of me, I wore one not because someone put it on my head but because I wanted it.”

Bell’s mother served as a councilwoman and mayor of Oakwood, where Bell graduated as high school valedictorian. He has been self-employed since 1983 at a water and wastewater treatment facilities construction company. Today, he is the CEO of several other companies.

During his first session, Bell focused on legislation relating to dual credit classes in high school, reducing requirements for concealed handgun licenses and providing liability protection to volunteers who assist during disasters. In his second session, legislation related to gay marriage makes up a sizable portion of his legislative portfolio — though he has filed bills on local issues.

Bell said the issue is important to him not just because of religious reasons, but to assert the sovereign rights of Texas.

“My own beliefs are my own beliefs, and I am certainly willing to assert them,” Bell said. “But I recognize that we don’t live in a theocracy. So what we’re talking about here is the sovereign rights of the states.”

He is not moved by polls showing growing support for gay marriage. According to an October 2014 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 42 percent of Texans polled were in favor of gay marriage. Forty-seven percent were against.

“If you want a more precise indication of where people are, look at another set of polls — those are the results of our elections in Texas,” Bell said. “It is one thing to say what the polls say. It’s another thing to look at people’s conduct.”

Bell also argues that federal court rulings account for the majority of states where same-sex marriage is now legal.

In four same-sex marriage cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court — from Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and Kentucky — the court is expected to address whether the states must allow same-sex marriages, and if they must recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.

Texas’ same-sex marriage ban was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2014, but remains in effect while the case is before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Though Bell disagrees, many expect the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex marriage this summer, which will likely have ramifications for any state with a gay marriage ban. Before the House convened on Thursday, Bell would not say what he thinks would happen if both the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage and his bill became law.

“That’s for itself to play out,” Bell said.

But when discussing his philosophy toward legislating, Bell said he believed in being proactive — not reactive.

“If we don’t deal with the big issues, we will be left with whatever emerges from those issues,” Bell said. “And I don’t believe in being constantly reactive. I believe in being proactive.”

[gdlr_icon type=”icon-camera-retro” size=”16px” color=”#999999″]State Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia, on the House floor on May 7, 2015. / photo credit: Todd Wiseman

[gdlr_notification icon=”icon-external-link” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#ffffff”]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/05/15/gay-marriage-fight-rep-bell-makes-proactive-strike/[/gdlr_notification]

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