AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The national debate over religious objection laws roiled again Thursday in Texas after Republican lawmakers abruptly pushed a new proposal on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court hearing historic arguments over gay marriage.
Even advocates for same-sex couples say the bill, aimed at allowing clergy members to refuse officiating marriages that violate their beliefs, largely duplicates protections that already exist.
However, the legislation drew attention because of its timing — weeks after filing deadlines had passed in the Texas Senate and on the same day the landmark gay marriage case was heard in Washington.
Republican state Sen. Craig Estes said the timing of the bill he introduced Tuesday was coincidental, but that didn't calm Democrats who felt blindsided and newly bracing for battle.
"It's like the equivalent of giving the legislative middle finger," Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said.
It threatened to break a relative calm in the Texas Legislature over proposals that gay rights activists say would invite discrimination. Unlike in Indiana and Arkansas, where religious objection laws for businesses created sweeping backlash, Texas has largely sidelined such contentious measures.
But a big difference now is the muscle behind the clergy bill: new Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose office holds considerable power in Texas. Patrick, a firebrand tea party leader, asked Estes to carry the proposal with a month remaining in the 140-day session.
A hearing scheduled for Thursday was temporarily delayed after Democrats objected to the short notice. Estes said the bill should not be controversial.
"We're not talking about the caterer, the flower arranger, we're talking about the minister," Estes said. "Ministers should have the right to uphold their religious beliefs."
Estes noted that Justice Antonin Scalia this week wrestled with the effect legalized gay marriage would have on clergy members who would object to officiating a ceremony for religious reasons.
Mary Bonauto, who represented same-sex couples in the case, told Scalia that clergy members already have those protections.
In February, a lesbian couple in Austin became the first same-sex couple to wed in Texas since voters passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2005. They had received a permission from a judge, and Texas Republicans are now pushing laws that would bar state and local government employees from licensing or recognizing same-sex marriages, regardless of how the Supreme Court rules.
Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who took office in January, opposes same-sex marriage but has not made religious objection laws or other anti-gay marriage efforts part of his public agenda.
Democrats and some gay rights activists see the new Senate bill as a way for Republicans — who overwhelmingly control the Texas Legislature — to respond to conservative voters with a Supreme Court decision imminent.
Chuck Smith, executive director of the gay rights group Equality Texas, said he actually has little issue with a similar bill that was previously filed in the House.
Smith said he supports religious liberty and worked with the Republican author, who has described his measure as a "shield, not a sword." Smith said it's the other efforts that concern him more.
"I treat is as part of a backlash," Smith said. "They are strategically either trying to defy a ruling or find other ways in order to preserve the ability to discriminate."