Texas shouldn't retreat from religious freedom bill

Photo by Anneke Els Paterson

Based on the furor and hysteria that followed the recent passage of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, you’d think this is a radical concept that spells the end of civilization as we know it.

Amid the uproar, Apple CEO Tim Cook condemned the law, Miley Cyrus called Gov. Mike Pence a derogatory name, and East and West Coast elected officials threatened to cancel official business to the Hoosier State.

The reaction suggested this was a novel affront to decency and an unprecedented intrusion by government. That denies the entire history of such laws. After all, it was in 1993 that President Bill Clinton signed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law after the House approved it unanimously and the Senate passed it 97-3. In 1997, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal act did not apply to the states. So some 18 years after the Supreme Court ruled that states must pass their own religious freedom laws, Indiana has finally done so. With the amount of frenzy and chaos that this bill has produced, it would be safe to assume that Indiana was the first state to take the high court up on its ruling, right?

Wrong. In fact, 19 states had religious freedom restoration acts before Indiana, and Arkansas last week became the 21st. (Barack Obama, in fact, voted in favor of Illinois’ law when he was a state senator.)

So, naturally, our focus turns to Texas. As it turns out, Texas has had a religious freedom restoration law in place since 1999. Hard to believe, isn’t it? For over a decade and a half, Texas has had a law that is meant to strike the delicate balance between religious freedom and government intrusion.

And the Texas law has struck that balance with much success. After all, in the last 16 years, has anyone heard of a Texas business that refused service to someone? Has there been a need to boycott any Texas business? With all the furor over the NCAA hosting the Final Four last weekend in Indianapolis, it seems to have escaped most people’s notice that just last year Texas hosted the Final Four even though it had a law in place similar to Indiana’s. Since 1999, Texas has also hosted Super Bowls, All-Star Games, huge business conventions and attracted numerous Fortune 500 companies. If these religious freedom laws are so bad for business and tourism, how has the so-called Texas economic miracle materialized while the state has had its own version of the law on the books?

The fact that Texas hasn’t experienced any similar backlash should be instructive to individuals on both sides of the debate.

Also, such laws do not give people a “license to discriminate,” as so many have inaccurately labeled them. Rather, they only give an individual, a group or a business a cause of action for a court challenge — not an automatic win. There are numerous examples of litigants losing their legal challenges.

It’s against this backdrop that my bill, House Joint Resolution 125, should be considered. All the measure does is strengthen Texas’ existing religious freedom statute with constitutional protection. Texas’ 16 years of experience should assure us that the parade of horribles promised by critics will not come to pass.

Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are bedrocks of civilization in Texas. Language protecting both has been in our constitution since 1876. A constitutional religious freedom act would carry on the rich tradition of venerating religious liberty by protecting all Texans, regardless of viewpoint or ideology.

This legislation has been proposed every session since 2011. Now is the time for Texas to pass the measure, put to rest all of the inaccuracies and hysteria, and show the rest of the country that Texas is once again a leader on an important topic.

Matt Krause

State representative, R-Fort Worth