SBTC Annual Meeting 2019

‘Delegated to the margins’

Harmonious legislative session a mixed bag for social conservatives

June 3rd, 2019 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

‘Delegated to the margins’

AUSTIN-The 86thSession of the Texas Legislature closed May 27 with the usual mixed results for religious liberty and pro-life legislative efforts. While new leadership in the House of Representatives under Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, diffused the rancor that defined the relationship between the House and Senate last session, the harmony came at a cost according to SBTC representatives.

“The Republican Party seemed shaken by losing,” said Ben Wright, chairman of the Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee (TERLC), referring to the party’s loss of 12 seats in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. “Issues tied to God’s design for humanity were delegated to the margins.”

And while bills promoting civil liberties based on sexual orientation and gender identity failed to pass, some received hearings – an advancement in the legislative process that has often eluded similar bills. The establishment of the first House LGBT Caucus indicated the group’s growing influence in the Capitol.

Wright urged Christians to establish and maintain relationships with their respective senators and representatives between legislative sessions. And the newly established SBTC online publication, The Sentinel, will keep Christians informed of religious liberty and ethics issues in the State of Texas.

“We have 18 months to build those relationships and start having those conversations on the issues we say are important to us,” Wright said.

Religious Liberty

Lawmakers passed, Senate Bill 1978, the First Amendment Defense Act, prohibiting government entities from discriminating against businesses because of their charitable contributions to religious organizations. Sen. Bryan Hughes, R- Mineola, filed the bill in early March and, as if on cue, the San Antonio City Council targeted fast-food chain Chick-fil-A for removal from the city’s airport vendor contract.

City councilman Robert Trevino and Mayor Ron Nirenberg criticized the company for donating to the Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes because of the ministries’ “anti-LGBT” standards.

SB 1978 became the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill.

The city’s action gave legislators a real-time example of religious discrimination by governments, Jonathan Saenz, Texas Values president, told the TEXAN.

“It’s always been unconstitutional. Nothing has changed,” he said.

Texas and federal law prohibit discrimination based on religion and the state’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act requires lawmakers to craft laws that will have the least amount of interference in the exercise of religion.

But Saenz said an effective campaign by LGBT advocates has “convinced people religious freedom doesn’t apply to the new issues” like same-sex marriage and forms of sexual expression and identity.

“It’s become very clear that what San Antonio is doing is unconstitutional and will be in violation of the [new] law,” said Saenz.

Gov. Greg Abbott has indicated he will sign the bill, which would then go into effect Sept. 1. But a June 8 San Antonio mayoral run-off election could force city council to revisit their decision.  Nirenberg faces City Councilman Greg Brockhouse, who has criticized the ban.

Pro-life Legislation

While state law prohibits the use of tax dollars to fund abortions or support abortion providers, local entities took advantage of a loophole that allowed them to ignore the law. So, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 22 closing that loophole.

In 2018 the City of Austin renewed a rental agreement with Planned Parenthood and charged the abortion provider only one dollar a year for 20 years. Pro-life advocates criticized such “sweetheart deals” that offset abortion providers’ operating costs at the expense of taxpayers. Austin’s deal will be illegal by Sept. 1 after the governor signs the bill. The Texas Attorney General will have the authority to place an injunction on such transactions.

The Infant Born Alive Protection Act, House Bill 16, also survived attacks from pro-abortion legislators. The law amends existing law establishing the rights of a living child by requiring physicians “preserve the life and health” of babies born prematurely or who survive an abortion. The Texas Attorney General can impose a fine up to $100,000 for failing to provide the care.

Pro-life advocates lamented the failure of bills that would have added civil penalties to the state’s dismemberment abortion ban, prohibit discriminatory abortions based on the unborn baby’s sex, race, or disability, and end the practice of “unlawful birth” lawsuits. And while in Louisiana, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio passed laws banning abortion after the detection of a heart beat the Texas version never received a committee hearing.

Calls for veto

More than 150 people representing 130 organizations, including the SBTC, signed a letter asking the governor to veto three related bills, SB 11, HB 18 and HB 19. The bills address school safety - an issue Abbott vowed to tackle in the wake of the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting that claimed 10 lives.

The three bills create a state mental health consortium that opponents fear will interfere with child-family relationships, target already marginalized students, and create a conflict of interest between the state and pharmaceutical companies.

“With the passage of SB 11, HB 18 and HB 19 we now have a massive, new and troubling government bureaucracy,” Cindy Asmussen, SBTC Ethics and Religious Liberty advisor, told the TEXAN.

Ben Wright, chairman of the Texas Ethics and Religious Liberties Committee, agreed.

“It’s well intentioned,” said Wright, pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church, in Cedar Park. But the mental health profession “isn’t known for its biblical view of marriage, God, sin, and spiritual regeneration.”

According to the 153 signatories of the veto request, the legislation doesn’t reflect the diversity of thought required to address the difficult subject.

“We believe that the issue of school safety needs more seats at the table and must involve a diversity of views of parents, faith-based counselors, ministries, and groups concerned with our liberties to discuss what is best for our children.”

Sex abuse reporting

In February a Houston Chronicle report alleging sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention affiliated churches shook Texas congregations and fueled calls for accountability. Among the allegations was that church leaders failed to report abuse suspicions to churches where the suspect relocated.

By March 8, pastor and Texas Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, filed House Bill 4345. Crafted with the aid of SBC pastors and an attorney with SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the bill provides employees, volunteers or independent contractors of charitable organizations immunity from civil lawsuits for disclosing allegations of sexual misconduct to relevant parties.

The bill passed in both chambers with no opposing votes.

Defining success

In his second year on the TERLC, and first year as chairman, Wright was encouraged by comments from representatives on both sides of the ideological divide that gave him an expanded understanding of legislative success.

“I’ve been really encouraged following some reporting and interviews by how several SBTC-connected legislators are shining examples of standing for their convictions while showing Christ-like love to their opponents,” he said. “I’ve heard more than one member of the LBGTQ caucus express respect and appreciation for them.”

And lawmakers expressed their appreciation for his testimony on HB 4345 as well as pastors’ engagement throughout the session.

“They were genuinely grateful for pastors showing up and speaking to ethical issues,” he said. “I suspect we underestimate how willing many of our elected representatives are to hear from us.”

Civic engagement by SBTC members is essential for establishing relationships with lawmakers when they head back to Austin in January 2021.