Written by Lauren McGaughy
Connect with Lauren McGaughy
AUSTIN — Conservative groups are attacking a slate of bills that would expand rights for LGBTQ Texans, claiming they are anti-Christian and would “effectively ban the Bible.”
Texas Values, a religious advocacy organization, is leading the effort, flooding social media and the conservative press with allegations that passing the bills would force Christians to violate their faith. The groups have launched a website and promoted the hashtag #BantheBible.
“‘Ban the Bible’ doesn’t have to mean confiscating physical Bibles. LGBT activists aren’t that obvious with their intentions (yet). But it does mean something even worse: stripping Texans of their right to practice biblical teachings in their day to day lives,” Texas Values communications associate James Wesolek wrote in The Federalist last week. “Just like at the Alamo, Texans must once again stand and fight for our freedoms. We must dare liberals to ‘Come and Take it!’”
Texas Tracker: Your Guide to the State Legislature
But lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Texans and their allies call these claims totally false. The bills do not mention the Scriptures or other religious texts, they said, and some bills even exempt religious organizations.
It’s the bathroom bill fight all over again, said Rep. Mary González, chairwoman of the new Texas House LGBTQ Caucus. When Texas Values and other groups promoted that effort to legislate which restrooms transgender people use, their slogan was “Keep men out of women’s restrooms.”
Now, they’ve rebranded, but González complained that they’re still selling a “false narrative.”
“These policies aren’t about banning the Bible. These policies are about not supporting discrimination,” the El Paso Democrat said. “Texas Values knows that.”
‘A civil rights bill’
Texas Values has put a dozen bills and resolutions on its “Ban the Bible” hit list.
One bill would streamline the process for modifying birth certificates, letting transgender people more easily change the sex on their identification documents. Another would repeal the state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. And several others would make it illegal for employers, landlords or business owners to deny a job, a place to live or a service to someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bills are similar to laws in at least 19 other states where it’s illegal to fire or refuse to hire people because they are part of the LGBTQ community.
Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, is the author of one of the employment anti-discrimination bills. He said it’s unacceptable that Texans still have to worry about losing their jobs because they’re gay, and he insisted his bill would “absolutely not” ban the Bible.
“If you think it should not be OK for your employer to terminate you based on who you date, then you should support my bill,” said Johnson, a lawyer who is running for mayor of Dallas. “You can try to make it about something else, but it’s the same kind of protection we provide to people in the workplace based on religion, based on race.”
“It’s not about special treatment,” he said. “House Bill 850 is a civil rights bill.”
Johnson has tried for years to get something similar passed. In 2017, he even got his bill passed out of committee for the first time. But Texas Values and a handful of the state’s most conservative advocacy groups are determined to keep that from happening again.
The “No Bible Ban” effort has the support of Empower Texans, whose political action committee seeks to oust moderate Republicans, and the far-right Texas Pastors Council, which also backed the bathroom bill.
Texas Values has also taken the fight to the local level. Nicole Hudgens, the group’s policy analyst, appeared at a Carrollton City Council meeting this week to oppose a proposal to ban discrimination against LGBTQ city employees and contractors.
“Don’t try to ban the Bible,” she urged the council. The ordinance passed 5-2.
It’s unclear why Texas Values has not used the argument before now. Conservative groups in California opposed a pro-LGBTQ bill last year, saying it would “ban the Bible,” but the phrase has not been widely used otherwise.
Texas Values president Jonathan Saenz said the effort responds to the more “aggressive” nature of the pro-LGBTQ bills filed this year. He pointed specifically to House Bill 517, which would penalize licensed counselors who attempt to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to reduce a child’s same-sex attractions.
Telling a Christian counselor he cannot use biblical teachings to address a child’s sexual feelings, Saenz said, is tantamount to removing the Scriptures altogether. Several states have banned such counseling, known colloquially as “conversion” or “ex-gay therapy,” for minors. But it remains legal in Texas.
“We think it allows someone to use a government law to take the Bible out of someone’s hand in that situation,” Saenz said. “If you’re going to be punished for believing what the Bible says, you’re banning the Bible.”
Saenz said Texas Values would oppose the pro-LGBTQ bills even if they exempted religious organizations from enforcement, calling such exemptions “either hollow or incomplete.”
“I wonder sometimes if Jesus and the disciples could qualify for some of these exemptions,” he said.
A changing culture
Texas Values is instead backing House Bill 1035. Dubbed the “Free to Believe” Act, the bill would protect county clerks and judges who turn away same-sex couples, marriage-related businesses that refuse service to these couples, and more. Its sponsor, Arlington Republican Rep. Bill Zedler, said the legislation responds to “the increase of attacks against religious organizations, business owners and individuals.”
“This bill ensures Texans are free to believe and exercise their beliefs in their communities without being punished by the government,” Zedler said in a prepared statement.
Some of the provisions in Zedler’s bill are already guaranteed in the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, according to free speech expert Dale Carpenter, and many others are so broad they may violate civil rights laws. As for banning the Bible, Carpenter said any attempt to do that would be unconstitutional.
“Nobody has ever pretended to think you could ban Bible verses or the Bible,” said Carpenter, chairman of constitutional law at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law. “This is a slogan. It is not a legal principle. It is a sort of poll-tested message rather than a careful legal analysis.”
He dismissed conservative criticisms of the pro-LGBTQ bills, pointing out that several other states have already passed similar anti-discrimination laws. Even court challenges have not resulted in the provisions being wiped off the law books.
“Laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and now gender identity cover 20 or 21 states, and we have seen very few conflicts between businesses and gay and transgender people,” Carpenter said. “There’s nothing like banning the Bible or Scripture or verse [in these bills]. It’s simply saying you can’t deny someone services, you can’t refuse to sell them something simply because they’re gay or transgender.”
González acknowledged that it’s unlikely any of the pro-LGBTQ bills will become law this year, a task made more difficult by the “No Bible Ban” effort. But she remains optimistic for the future, chalking the opposition up to fear over the ever-greater acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“Texans are growing in this area,” she said, smiling. “The culture is changing.”