Two Republican state legislators — one in Texas, the other in Michigan — are fighting back against attempts to widen civil rights protections to include the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered members of their communities.
Just a few days after winning re-election, Texas state Sen. Donna Campbell (R) began a second attempt to win approval of a Texas constitutional amendment that gay rights advocates warned would allow employers and businesses to discriminate because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identification.
At the same time, one of the freshest members of the Michigan Legislature, newly elected state Rep. Todd Courser, issued a white-hot statement accusing some of his fellow Republicans of violating promises made to their constituents by proposing an expansion of the state’s civil rights laws to cover homosexuals.
“Unencumbered by the accountability that elections provide, we are watching ‘Republicans’ show their true colors, which stand in stark contrast to the principles they have espoused in their time in office or on the campaign trail,” Courser said.
He is not offering a Campbell-style legislative alternative. Instead Courser is talking about a GOP mutiny if the Legislature fails to block the expansion of gay rights in Michigan.
“If this is unsuccessful, the caucus must turn their backs on their rogue leader and walk out, refusing to vote on any other piece of legislation during lame duck,” Courser said.
“If the State House Speaker wishes to pass a Democratic agenda with Democratic votes and ignore the principles of the Republican caucus that elected him, let him look out at the chamber and see his true allies — liberals and statists seeking an agenda beholden to Big Government secularism.”
Campbell’s Restoring Religious Freedom Restoration Act — known officially as Senate Joint Resolution 10, which was filed Nov. 10 — proposes to amend the Texas constitution to say “government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”
“Standing up for Texas values requires a firm commitment to free speech, and religious liberty,” Campbell said in a statement.
“Fifteen other states have adopted similar language in their constitutions, and Texans should be afforded the same guaranteed protection of liberty,” she added.
However, similar efforts were blocked this year in South Dakota, Idaho, Tennessee, Arizona and Kansas.
“Ostensibly, this bill is being presented as a bill about religious freedom,” Aaron Roberts, minister at Colonial Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, told the Topeka Capital-Journal. “It’s actually a license for bigotry.”
Chuck Smith, the executive director of the gay-rights organization Equality Texas, said Campbell’s proposal would allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity “under the veil of religious freedom.”
Campbell’s spokesman Jon Oliver said the Republican is not trying to allow discrimination against anyone.
He said Campbell is only trying to stop situations like what occurred in October when Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued subpoenas to find out what five pastors in her city were saying about a lawsuit against the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance.
Some of the pastors were part of an effort to repeal the ordinance through a referendum.
The mayor issued the order in October but rescinded it in November.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“Freedom of speech and freedom of religion are at the very core of who we are as Americans and Texans,” said Campbell when Parker issued the five subpoenas.
“I am appalled that the city of Houston would insert themselves into the role of government censor regarding pastors’ sermons and try to intimidate Texans of faith for expressing their moral and religious beliefs. This is the kind of behavior one expects from Communist China, not from the largest city in Texas,” Campbell added.
Campbell, who is also a practicing emergency room physician, first offered the Restoring Religious Freedom Restoration Act in April 2013. It failed to get past the Texas Senate State Affairs Committee.
During a hearing, committee members and witnesses argued her proposal would only duplicate protections already in place in the U.S. Constitution and in the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA).
Campbell said her proposal would put the intent of the TRFRA into “a more formidable position” in the state constitution.
Opponents warned Campbell’s proposal could go further than even she intended, and might wind up protecting organizations like the Westboro Baptist Church and its protests at military funerals.
While no one in Texas is yet talking about expanding civil rights protections to cover the LGBT community, that is the focus of a movement in Michigan — where people can legally lose their apartment leases or their jobs because of their gender and sexual identification.
The effort to expand the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act is being led by the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of business, legislative and civil rights leaders that includes Gov. Rick Snyder (R).
A statement on the coalition’s website argues it is bad business to discriminate.
“First, this is simply unfair. Second, it is bad for business and bad for Michigan as we compete with other states for talented, well-educated and hard working employees to help drive Michigan’s economic comeback.”
However, Paul Mitchell, the chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition in Michigan, wrote in an Oct. 14 Detroit News op-ed that the expansion of gay rights protection would be disastrous for small businesses.
“The expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation would open the proverbial Pandora’s box and puts Michigan’s small and family businesses at substantial risk,” Mitchell wrote.
“This is not about acceptance or even rights for that matter. This is about trial lawyers and litigation. This is about workplace policy and the potential exploitation of it. This is about major corporations with a team of lawyers being able to withstand the storm, while ‘Mom and Pop’ small business owners risk losing everything trying to defend themselves against the mere claim of discrimination,” he added.
While he waits to be sworn into office in January, Michigan state Representative in waiting Todd Courser said the debate is not about whether gay rights are good for Michigan businesses.
He believes this is about protecting the religious freedom of business owners in Michigan to serve and work with whomever they choose.
“It is an egregious offense that they are trampling on the religious liberties endowed by our Creator,” said Courser, “and enshrined in our state and federal constitutions.”