Two years after the failure of a bill that would have restricted the use of bathrooms to a person's birth gender, the Texas Legislature is trying to enact another highly controversial law, this one aiming to allow certain licensed practitioners to refuse service based on their religious beliefs. The state Senate approved Senate Bill 17 on April 3; it is now in the hands of the Texas House, and could come out of committee as early as Monday.
According to the Dallas Morning News, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Texans who attended a hearing in March are concerned the legislation would give medical professionals, attorneys and anyone else licensed by the state the right to cite religious doctrine as a reason for turning people away.
NMG caught up with Phillip Jones, president and CEO of Visit Dallas, as he drove to Austin for a Friday afternoon meeting with Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), who took the reins of the government body in January. The goal is to come to an agreement that the bill, which would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism, convention and sports-event business, should not make it to a vote. "I think he understands that discriminatory legislation is bad for Texas, bad for the business of Texas, and certainly bad for the convention and visitors bureaus of Texas," said Jones. "I don't think that he would push it, but I don't know that he would stop it like [former speaker] Joe Straus did." When the bathroom bill was being debated, Straus repeatedly said it was not a priority for him and his colleagues, and did not bring the issue to the House floor.
In that earlier fight, a host of Texas businesses, convention and visitors bureaus, and meetings hosts rallied to block the bathroom bill, and Jones says the community is ready to go again, with a press conference tentatively scheduled for Tuesday if the bill comes out of committee. "But our goal is to keep it from being voted out of committee," he said. "It's so much easier to kill it in committee so it just goes away."
Jones added that four large groups with events scheduled soon that are expected to bring $100 million in spending to Dallas are ready to move if SB-17 comes to a vote on the house floor. Another 40 events worth $1 billion will pull out of the state if the bill or a similar one becomes law.
Jack Molisani, whose LavaCon Conference for senior content professionals is scheduled to take place in Austin in 2021 and 2023, is prepared to pull his event if SB-17 goes through. "Knowing that conservative Texas can be antigay, I put a clause in the contract with the convention center saying I have the right to cancel the contract without penalty if Texas passes ANY discriminatory laws," he said. The exact wording he used was: "LavaCon does not discriminate against attendees based on race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin, etc. and refuses to do business in states that do. Group reserves the right to cancel this contract without liability should the city of Austin or the state of Texas pass any laws that are discriminatory based on race, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, country of origin or any other such personal attribute."
Authored by Charles Perry (R-Lubbock), SB-17 is a direct response to Rule 8.4(g) of the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which says lawyers should be prohibited from discrimination based on a client's sexual orientation and gender identity; the State Bar of Texas has not adopted the ABA's rule. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick issued the following statement when the bill passed in the state Senate: "Senate Bill 17 will ensure that no Texan will ever have to choose between their job and their faith. Preserving religious liberty has, and will always be, one of my top priorities, and I congratulate Sen. Perry on passing this important legislation. Senate Bill 17 will protect Texans of all religious faiths."