With LGBT issues, Abbott must balance base and businesses

Photo by Owen Parry

“Texans of all faiths must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that their religious freedom is beyond the reach of government,” wrote Gov. Greg Abbott in a memo to all state agency heads on June 26, 2015, the day the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. The memo went on to affirm that “the government must never pressure a person to abandon or violate his or her sincerely held religious beliefs regarding a topic such as marriage.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was — characteristically — more rhetorically sharp in his response: “I would rather be on the wrong side of history,” he said in a statement the morning of the Supreme Court decision, “than on the wrong side of my faith and my beliefs.” A few months later, Patrick would take an active and very public role in helping to defeat Proposition 1 in Houston, which its supporters billed as an anti-discrimination ordinance meant to protect the city's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population.

The politics of the Texas GOP leadership’s immediate and no doubt well-planned responses to the court’s validation of same sex marriage echoed the responses by much of the southern wing of their party, and they provided a glimpse of things yet to come in Texas once national politics stabilize after the November elections. But these responses, and their underlying approach to the problem, are not without their share of difficulties.

The recent resistance of GOP-led state governments in Mississippi and North Carolina to local efforts to prevent discrimination against gay and lesbian residents has been met by a very public backlash from corporate actors in sectors ranging from professional sports leagues and banks to tech giants and manufacturers. Their repudiation has highlighted the increasingly familiar friction within the GOP between its socially conservative voting base and the business interests that in many cases play an outsized role in the party’s donor class.

The governors of these and other states have discovered that businesses looking to recruit and retain educated, cosmopolitan employees; to sell their products and services to the broadest possible base of customers, especially young ones; and to avoid pressure from gay and lesbian civil rights groups don’t want to be associated with policies perceived as being discriminatory against the LGBT community. Bigotry is bad for business. The Texas Association of Business has been a loud warning voice on this front, underlining the economic — rather than the ideological — nature of these concerns for many otherwise solidly Republican interests in the state.

This resistance notwithstanding, it is all but certain that the lieutenant governor, his allies and their fellow travelers in the Legislature will resume efforts to pass “religious protection” measures when the next legislative session cranks. These efforts will pose challenges to Republican leaders attempting to keep the disparate elements that make up their party within the GOP tent — especially Governor Abbott.

While the Legislature and the political class in Texas have already engaged in discussions of the potential for negative macroeconomic consequences as a result of using the tools of state government to resist the growing acceptance of the LGBT community as full members of civil society, another, even more pitched fight on the subject is almost guaranteed to take place in 2017 in the wake of the actions by other states, the presidential election and, maybe most importantly, the run-up to the 2018 Texas elections.

The various proposals floated during the 84th Legislature to protect Texans resistant to providing services to LGBT customers on account of religious objections, and the continuing attention to “religious protection” during the increasingly fraught interim, reflect Texas’ partisan patterns in attitudes toward gay marriage and the extension of equal rights protections. Importantly, these proposals also reflect Christians' beliefs about the relative amounts of discrimination they have experienced:

  • Between 2009 and 2015, support among Texas Republicans for gay marriage increased from 9 percent to a high of 25 percent by mid-2015. Opposition among Republicans, however, remained widespread at about 60 percent.
  • In June 2015, 64 percent of Texas Republicans said that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers for religious reasons. Note that this is not the specific protection of clergy affirmed by the Legislature in 2015.
  • In an extensive battery of questions about perceptions of different groups’ experience of discrimination in America in the June 2015 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, gays and lesbians were seen as experiencing discrimination by some Republicans: 19 percent said gay and lesbian people experienced “a lot” of discrimination and 38 percent said they experienced “some.” By contrast, in the same poll, 39 percent of Texas Republicans said Christians faced “a lot” of discrimination, with 29 percent saying that they experience “some.”

Given these attitudes and the cultural and political history of the state on LGBT issues, it should come as no surprise that the likely confrontation between different elements of the GOP in Texas will not be the Legislature's first rodeo when it comes to “religious protection” legislation.

Elements in the 84th Legislature — in particular the Dan Patrick-led Senate — strove to do their part as anxiety mounted about what most conservatives saw as the Supreme Court’s looming decision to throw Christians to the gay and lesbian lions (though some House members did their parts, too). Their only significant legislative success was the relatively narrow and largely bipartisan Pastor Protection Act. Larger-scale proposals such as Rep. Cecil Bell’s bill prohibiting state or local government employees from recognizing, granting or enforcing same-sex marriages died in the House. Similar legislation failed in the Senate, leaving the GOP majority in the upper house to settle for a resolution affirming “the present definition” of marriage after an intense — and time consuming — debate late in the session.

Yet in the interim since the 84th was gaveled out, the battle to protect the right of spiritual objections to LGBT people in government and the marketplace — especially, apparently, in bathrooms — has been joined more broadly, both nationally and in Texas. Moreover, these fights have reactivated the tension between the goals of social conservatives in the GOP and the interests in economic development that are central to both entities doing business in the state and elected officials encouraging enterprise.

Even in the recent past, Republican elected officials were expected to give pride of place to private enterprise and economic development. In the current setting, corporate pressure to accept the law of the land on gay marriage and move on is much more likely to be seen as yet another elite betrayal than the expected give and take of coalition politics. As in other key issues at the center of discussions in the Republican Party, the notion of balancing the interests of economic development and social values has given way to a more fiery vision of relentless secularization eroding the sacred. The lion’s share of the Republican base, as polling amply illustrates, seems much more sensitive to being betrayed by GOP leaders than to the nuance of trade-offs in competing values.

This is the world that Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, and Joe Straus will walk into as the Legislature is gaveled in for the 2017 session.

The lieutenant governor has committed to leading on the issue, most recently evident in his interim charge to the state affairs committee to “make recommendations to ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Conversely, the House leadership will once again be in the historically unusual position of moderating the impulses not only of their more extreme members but also of an increasingly ideologically oriented Senate — with all the electoral headaches this role brings (see state affairs chairman Byron Cook’s primary experience earlier this year).

This leaves Abbott — the titular head of the Texas GOP (Sen. Ted Cruz notwithstanding) and, if his recent public relations offensive is to be taken seriously, an aspiring participant in national conservative politics – in the position of managing the heightened conflict surrounding LGBT rights. While Abbott has been less flamboyant in his economic development efforts than his predecessor, he has nonetheless also flown that flag, even as he has courted social conservatives with his statements on gay marriage and his constitutional fundamentalism.

Should anti-LGBT activism return with increasing vehemence in 2017, even as the heady days of the Texas Miracle fade, it will be increasingly difficult for Abbott to avoid either disappointing the social conservatives so central to victory in GOP primaries or failing the business interests so central to the economics of both his state and his party.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin