EXCLUSIVE: Texas Legislature passed “license to discriminate” bill similar to Arizona’s in 1999


GOP state Sen. Ken Paxton, who’s now running for attorney general, co-authored the Texas Religious Freedom Amendment in 2013.

As battles rage over anti-gay “license to discriminate” bills in Arizona and elsewhere, it’s worth noting that Texas already has a similar law on the books.

It’s called the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and it was passed by the Legislature in 1999. Although it is slightly less broad, the TRFRA is very similar to SB 1062 in Arizona.

Like SB 1062, the Texas law prohibits any state or local government agency from substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion, unless there’s a compelling interest and the government action is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The “free exercise of religion” is defined as anything that’s “substantially motivated by sincere religious beliefs,” regardless of whether it’s “central” to those religious beliefs.

The TRFRA also states that, “A person whose free exercise of religion has been substantially burdened … may assert that violation as a defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding without regard to whether the proceeding is brought in the name of the state or by any other person.”

In other words, under the TRFRA, any “person” is free to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity — or against any other class not protected under state or federal civil rights laws — as long as it’s based on the person’s sincerely held religious beliefs. Person is not defined in the Texas law. The Arizona bill would specifically define “person” to  include “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.”

Last year, Republican Texas legislators introduced a resolution aimed at enshrining the TRFRA into the state Constitution.

Sens. Donna Campbell and Ken Paxton authored the Senate version of the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment. Paxton is now running for attorney general in the March 4 GOP primary. The House version of the resolution was authored by five state representatives. Both measures were left pending in committee.

Not surprisingly, the Religious Freedom Amendment was championed at the time by the anti-group Texas Values. As I reported earlier this month, Texas Values recently became affiliated with Focus on the Family through a network of state-level groups called Citizen Link. Al Jazeera America reported last week that Citizen Link is among the groups pushing “license to discriminate” bills around the country. Citizen Link’s stated mission is to “help citizens understand and passionately engage in policy issues relevant to families from a foundation firmly established in a biblical worldview.”