On April 2, the Texas Senate passed Senate Bill 17, a “religious refusals” piece of legislation, originally introduced by Lubbock Republican Charles Perry.
The bill allows for individuals in any occupation requiring licensure by the state to refuse service to or discriminate against unprotected classes of individuals.
The move has provoked condemnation by major business leaders and LGBTQ+ communities due to its ability to allow licensed professionals to discriminate on the grounds of freedom of religious expression. Proponents of the bill claim that the measure allows individuals to avoid choosing between their job and their religious expression.
If a social worker, for instance, does not want to take a case involving a transgender youth, they can refuse the case assignment. If a cosmetologist wishes not to serve a lesbian client, they could also refuse service. The protections seem to extend as well to doctors and attorneys. If the bill is signed into law, such refusals will be allowed with no risk of penalty regarding the status of the license to the person doing so.
The scope of the bill would not cover refusal of service on the grounds of race or country of origin, as these are protected by state and federal civil rights statutes. However, as the LGBTQ+ community has no similar protections under Texas state law, these communities are not guaranteed the same protections. It is lawful already, in other words, for employers to discriminate against LGBTQ+ individuals. This bill widens the door further for similar actions by those in state licensed professions, e.g., attorneys, social workers, even cosmetologists.
While no direct language in the bill is aimed toward the LGBTQ+ community, verbal arguments made ties to the Colorado baker who refused service to a gay couple, eventually being backed by the Supreme Court. Another similar case is the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples after such discrimination was struck down by a Supreme Court ruling. She claimed that doing so violated her religious beliefs.
To any familiar with Jim Crow legislation, the language and intent of the bill should sound familiar. Rarely did restrictive Jim Crow voting laws, for example, explicitly target people of color with direct language. Rather, the protections afforded or the ambiguity produced by broader language within a law allowed white individuals and power holders to then discriminate in ways that on the surface were not explicitly linked to race, though they obviously were.
Likewise, proponents of this bill claim that it’s for the sake of free religious expression, not animus towards LGBTQ+ communities. Nevertheless, and quite obviously, there seems to be no immediate danger of this freedom being infringed upon in one’s private life when not serving as an agent of the state.
Furthermore, when State Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, introduced an amendment to add an explicit protection for individuals based on sexual and gender identity, the amendment failed by a vote of 12-19.
This is, thus, one additional example of a legislative maneuver to further use the cover of religious freedom to prop up one dominant group’s particular religious understanding of sex and gender in order to discriminate against LGBTQ+ persons. Of course, such a thing will never be admitted.
It’s quite the irony that groups who laud their courage of conviction to live as faithful people do not even have the courage of conviction to name explicitly their discriminatory targeting of the Other whom they fear and despise so much.
Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is founding editor of Progressive Southern Theologians. He currently serves as the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture. He is a proud alumnus of the University of Mount Olive and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.