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Equality Texas Names Samantha Smoot as Interim Executive Director

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Equality Texas announced Samantha Smoot has taken the helm as the interim executive director, following the departure of current CEO and longtime champion Chuck Smith.

“Next year is the 30th Anniversary of Equality Texas. I have been with the organization for half that time. The Board and I have decided it’s time for a new generation of leadership to take us to the next step in our fight for equality in Texas. I am honored to pass the leadership of the organization on to Samantha Smoot, a native Texan and global leader in the fight for equality,” said Chuck Smith.

As CEO, Smith led the growth in programs to help LGBTQ Texans, oversaw the expansion of staff statewide, created a business outreach program that is a model for the country, gave transgender people a visible voice, defeated the bathroom bill twice during the 2017 legislative session and passed anti-bullying legislation in 2011.

“We are at a critical chapter in our fight for equal treatment of all Texans,” said Elizabeth Myers, President of the Equality Texas Foundation Board. “For 15 years, Chuck has served our organization, establishing Equality Texas as a credible, successful, and relentless advocate in Texas state politics. We are confident that Sam will continue that momentum and lead us to future victories for LGBTQ Texans.”

Smoot brings 20 years of experience leading citizen advocacy campaigns to the Equality Texas organization. She has served as Political Director of both the Planned Parenthood Federation for America and the Human Rights Campaign, as well as the Executive Director for Texas Freedom Network. More recently, she has fought to support citizen groups and political leaders as they build more inclusive democracies through her work in the Middle East and North Africa, West Africa, and Eurasia with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.

“I am honored to serve as the interim executive director of Equality Texas during the 2019 state legislative session, and I look forward to working with the leadership team, staff, volunteers and donors to ensure full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Texans,” said Smoot. “Through political action, education, and community organizing, we will continue to drive positive change and fight against systemic discrimination.”

The Board of Directors expresses gratitude to Smith for his dedication and vital role as a pioneer for Equality Texas and welcome Smoot’s proven leadership for the 2019 Texas Legislative Session.

Source: Press release

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86th TX Lege

Texas Senate Passes Religious Liberty Bill That LGBTQ Advocates Fear Licenses Discrimination

The measure moved quickly through the Senate after the LGBTQ Caucus killed a near-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week in the Texas House.

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State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, on the Senate floor on May 15, 2019. Photo credit: Juan Figueroa / The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan HughesSenate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on their association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins, and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

Democrats, questioning whether Hughes’ bill would protect organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church — called “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America” by the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center — worked to amend the bill to clarify that it does not protect discriminatory groups hiding behind the cover of religion. Pointing to the law’s definition of “religious organization,” Hughes asserted such language was unnecessary, and said some amendments could “confuse” the bill.

State Sen. José Menéndez, a San Antonio Democrat who has filed a number of bills to outlaw discrimination against LGBTQ communities, questioned why the upper chamber is debating a measure that worries gay communities instead of a measure that protects their rights.

“Session after session, we end up entertaining legislation that sends a message to my LGBT staff members…They feel they’re coming under attack for who they are. So the question I have is: What do you say to them?” Menendez asked. “Do you think Chick-fil-A needs more protection from us than our constituents who have a history of being discriminated against?”

Throughout the lengthy floor debate, Hughes maintained that his bill does not sanction discrimination.

“I would only ask you to look at the language in this amendment we’ll be offering and show us where there’s discrimination,” Hughes said. In the new version of the measure, he said, “folks will be hard pressed to find discrimination.”

The bill will need to move quickly if it is to make it to the governor’s desk. The deadline for the House to pass it is Tuesday; before then, it must receive a committee hearing and approval, and also move through the lower chamber’s calendars committee.

Its chances look good in the lower chamber, though it died there on a procedural motion last week. House Speaker Dennis Bonnen told Spectrum News this week he personally supports the bill, adding, “I think it would pass the House.” A House companion bill has 70 co-authors, nearly half the chamber.

Hughes’ bill, which he amended on the floor, is near-identical to the House proposal that died last week — but with one notable difference.

Hughes’ bill says it does not apply to a 2017 law that made it illegal for the state to contract with companies unless they pledge not to boycott Israel; Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a bill to narrow that law, excluding state contractors with very few employees, after a federal judge temporarily blocked the law’s enforcement, citing free speech concerns.

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio Airport after a member of the city council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has billed himself as a crusader for religious liberty, leapt into the ensuing culture war, launching an investigation into the city’s actions in that case and asking the U.S. Department of Transportation to probe the situation as well.

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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86th TX Lege

Texas Senate Revives, Fast-Tracks Religious Liberty Bill that LGBTQ Caucus Killed in the House

The measure, which had yet to advance in the Senate, was swiftly voted out of a surprise committee hearing Monday, days after companion legislation in the House died on the floor.

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The Senate bill, filed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, prevents the government from taking “adverse action” against individuals for acting in accordance with their “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage.” Photo credit: Juan Figueroa / The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

After LGBTQ lawmakers in the Texas House killed a religious liberty bill they feared could be dangerous to their community, the Texas Senate has brought it back — and looks to be fast-tracking it.

House Bill 3172, by state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, effectively died Thursday after members of the lower chamber’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a pair of procedural ploys. On Monday, a companion bill filed in the Senate by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, moved for the first time in weeks. After being unexpectedly added to an afternoon committee docket, it was swiftly voted out of the panel on a party-line vote.

Within the hour, the bill was placed on the Senate’s agenda, making it eligible for a vote later this week.

As filed, the Senate bill prevents the government from taking “adverse action” against individuals for acting in accordance with their “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage.” Advocates fear that would embolden businesses to decline service to members of the LGBTQ community.

Faced with those concerns at a contentious late-night hearing, Krause significantly watered down the House version, removing some of the strongest language and spurring groups like Texas Impact, a faith-based organization that opposes discriminatory measures, to remove their opposition to it.

That watered-down version — which Hughes has indicated he prefers — would prevent government entities from taking “adverse action” against individuals or organizations based on their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization” — protections that, in large part, already exist in law. It also would have empowered the Texas attorney general to sue on behalf of individuals or organizations claiming religious discrimination.

Last week, when that version of the bill died in the House, it was due to an objection that the bill hadn’t followed the proper procedures — not an up-or-down vote on its merits from lawmakers. The House version of the bill had a total of 70 lawmakers — nearly half the chamber — signed on as authors.

In an interview minutes after he watched his bill die on the House floor, Krause said he was surprised advocates and his LGBTQ colleagues opposed the new version of the bill, which he said had been significantly altered to ameliorate their concerns. He added that he hoped to see the bill move in the Senate.

Hughes did not offer a watered-down version Monday but indicated he plans to amend the bill on the Senate floor so that it aligns with Krause’s slimmer proposal.

“[Rep. Krause] worked very, very hard, worked with stakeholders all across the spectrum, to come up with language that was not offensive, that would accomplish the intended ends without harming, without causing problems,” Hughes said as he laid the bill out at a sparsely attended committee hearing Monday. He added that he intends to “make the bill look more like the agreed-to language that Rep. Krause was able to work out over in the House.”

Five Republicans on the committee voted for the bill, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, voted against it.

If the bill is to proceed, it will have to maintain its blistering pace. Next Tuesday is the deadline for the House to approve Senate bills. Before it reaches the House floor, the measure would need to win approval from the full Senate, be referred by the House speaker to a committee, get scheduled for a hearing and earn a positive vote from a House committee.

Advocates have long feared that floor debate on the bill in the socially conservative Texas Senate could result in a slew of anti-LGBTQ amendments. In a one-page handout issued to Texas House members last week in anticipation of floor debate, the advocacy group Equality Texas warned that if the measure came up for debate, it could spark a “‘bathroom bill’ style floor fight.”

The Texas Senate already passed a different religious refusals bill. Senate Bill 17, which advocates call a “license to discriminate,” would allow occupational license holders like social workers or lawyers to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” when their licenses are at risk due to professional behavior or speech. Advocates say the Hughes bill moving this week — at least in its original form — contains all that language and more troubling provisions.

“A majority of Texans want equal rights for LGBTQ people, not discrimination,” said Sam Smoot, interim director of Equality Texas. “In the final days of the session, we hope state leaders will return to the position they held on Jan. 8, that this session would not focus attacks on the LGBTQ community.”

Supporters of the bill — notably, the hardline group Texas Values, which pushed the bathroom bill in 2017 — have dubbed it the #SaveChickFilA bill. That apparently refers to a provision that would lay the groundwork for Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue San Antonio, whose City Council voted earlier this year to keep Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the city’s airport after one member, Robert Treviño, said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

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

Disclosure: Equality Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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86th TX Lege

Texas LGBTQ Caucus Marks Major Victory, Killing Bill They Feared Would Hurt Gay People

The LGBTQ Caucus, formed this year, notched a major victory Thursday evening, defeating a controversial measure as the Texas House raced toward a midnight deadline.

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“We’re getting things done, and we’re here to stay,” state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, said of the House LGBTQ Caucus. Photo credit: Emree Weaver/The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

In their first major test, members of the Texas House’s LGBTQ Caucus helped muscle down a bill Thursday night that they characterized as an assault on gay rights and protections.

The five female lawmakers in the first-of-its-kind caucus used a parliamentary maneuver to delay and ultimately defeat House Bill 3172 by Fort Worth Republican Matt Krause, a measure he said would protect religious individuals and organizations from attacks by the government, and authorize the Texas attorney general to bring lawsuits in their defense.

With the Texas House racing toward a midnight deadline to consider its bills, state Rep. Julie Johnson, a Carrollton Democrat and longtime trial lawyer, rose with a “point of order” — a procedural technicality aimed at delaying or killing a bill. It was shot down. But she had a second point of order up her sleeve, and this one — to the surprise of many — stuck. While it’s possible Krause’s measure could get amended to another piece of legislation in the waning days of the legislative session, the clock has run out for this particular bill.

“The LGBTQ Caucus is in the House,” Johnson said in an interview on the House floor shortly after the bill was defeated. “We’re getting things done, and we’re here to stay.”

The defeat of Krause’s bill — which many LGBTQ advocates considered the most serious threat to reach the House floor this session — took less than an hour. And it marked a major shift in tone in a chamber that has been less conservative since the 2018 midterms. This session, pro-LGBTQ measures have made unprecedented progress in the Republican-majority Texas House, earning debate in committees for the first time — though few, if any, are expected to become law. The death of Krause’s bill was particularly striking given how close a highly controversial “bathroom bill” got to becoming law during the last legislative session.

“This commonsense religious freedom effort is far from over. We will not allow the clear will of the majority of Texans and a bipartisan majority of the Texas Legislature to be thwarted by a few,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action.

By the time Krause’s bill reached the House floor, it had already been significantly watered down. That followed a late-night committee hearing that drew passionate opposition from the LGBTQ community. As presented Thursday, the bill would have prevented government entities from taking “adverse action” against individuals or organizations based on their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization” — protections that, in large part, are already enshrined in current law. Some groups, such as Texas Impact, a faith-based organization that opposes discriminatory measures, removed their opposition to the bill after its toughest language was stripped out.

But LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers still feared the bill could be amended or restored to its original version in a messy floor fight — particularly in the more socially conservative Texas Senate, which has already passed a so-called religious refusals law.

Krause said he would not have allowed additions from either chamber, and added he was disappointed that the House did not get the chance to debate his bill, especially after the revised measure stripped out so much of the language that caused advocates concern.

“Not only was there no discriminatory intent, there was no discriminatory language,” Krause said. “There was no discriminatory possibility with this bill. We worked very hard to make sure that was the case.”

Krause’s bill would also have allowed the Texas attorney general to sue state employees or government entities to force them to comply with the measure. That provision would have laid the groundwork for Attorney General Ken Paxton to sue San Antonio, a city that has often drawn the ire — and the litigation power — of his office. Paxton launched an investigation into the City Council’s decision earlier this year to keep Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the city’s airport. One council member, Robert Treviño, asked to block the franchise from a slate of contracts, saying he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Supporters of the Krause bill had lauded its potential to “#SaveChickFilA.” The interest group Texas Values — best known for leading the charge for the “bathroom bill” that dominated Capitol conversations in 2017 — had worked to drum up support for the Krause proposal at a “Save Chick-fil-A” advocacy day at the Capitol in April, an all-day affair that began with a lunchtime rally and ended in the early hours of the next morning in a committee hearing packed with witnesses.

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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