DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Austin, Texas, a new raft of anti-LGBT legislation is working its way through the state legislature. One bill would allow state-licensed professionals of all types to deny services on religious grounds. Opponents call this legislation religious refusal bills. Supporters say the proposed laws are needed to protect those with strongly held religious beliefs. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has more.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: On a windy Tuesday morning on the steps of the capital in Austin, Texas business leaders gathered to announce their opposition to a series of bills that would sanction discrimination against their LGBT employees.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE HOLLINGER: I'm proud to speak on behalf of IBM, a company with an 80-plus year legacy in Texas and a workforce of around 10,000 here in the Lone Star State.
GOODWYN: Mike Hollinger is an executive at IBM.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HOLLINGER: This license to discriminate will damage the state's reputation and prevent people, including IBMers, from wanting to live and work here.
GOODWYN: The legislation Hollinger's referencing would allow licensed professionals, like plumbers or electricians, to deny service to anyone based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. A coalition of more than 1,000 Texas and national businesses called Texas Competes are lobbying against the bills. It's the convention and travel industries in particular that tend to be the canaries in the coal mine. Phillip Jones, president and CEO of VisitDallas, says they'd be the first to keel over if the controversial legislation passes.
PHILLIP JONES: One in 10 trade shows held in America are held in Texas. I've got $100 million-worth of businesses currently at risk if this legislation were to pass.
GOODWYN: Two years ago, Texas tried to pass a bathroom bill that targeted transgender people. That bill provoked widespread opposition from businesses and business groups around the country. Jones says that even though the bill eventually failed, Texas convention centers had to adjust their contracts.
JONES: Based on our experience with the bathroom bill, they have a provision in their contracts that spells out that should Texas pass any form of discriminatory legislation, then they can cancel their meeting in Texas or in Dallas without any penalties.
GOODWYN: Supporters of the proposed legislation insist the idea is not to discriminate against LGBT people. The idea is to protect Texans who have strongly held religious convictions from being discriminated against. While the new laws would apply to nearly every state-licensed occupation, there are a few exemptions. Police officers, first responders and doctors providing immediate, life-saving care would have to serve the general public. Jonathan Saenz is the president of Texas Values, a religious liberty organization.
JONATHAN SAENZ: Texans are very concerned about the attacks on our religious freedom and people of faith, particularly people that believe marriage and sexuality as it's defined in the Bible.
GOODWYN: Denying service to anyone or any group would be copacetic as long as that denial is rooted in the provider's sincerely held religious beliefs. Senate Bill 17 has already passed in the Texas Senate and moved to the House. Here's Texas Values' Jonathan Saenz again.
SAENZ: Senate Bill 17 just makes it clear that you can't force someone to choose between their work and their faith. You can't use the government to punish people that have to get a certain license or authorization just because of some of the personal religious beliefs that they have.
GOODWYN: It's rural communities which are most vulnerable if doctors or pharmacists refuse service. Alternatives are usually scarce or nonexistent. And opponents of the legislation worry that municipal, nondiscrimination ordinances in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio could be rendered unenforceable too. Dale Carpenter is a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University. Carpenter says that other than the city ordinances, state law provides no safeguards.
DALE CARPENTER: It is already perfectly legal to decline service and to do so on a discriminatory basis in the state of Texas. And, in fact, rights of conscience are already protected against state regulation for private citizens and professionals and businesses.
GOODWYN: Carpenter says that federal civil rights laws passed in the 1960s provide less protection from discrimination than many might imagine. Race, religion and national origin are protected from discrimination in public accommodations only, like restaurants, hotels and theaters. On Post-it Notes, Carpenter jotted down an ad hoc list of professions that can legally discriminate in Texas.
CARPENTER: Athletic trainers, doctors and nurses, dentists, accountants, engineers, architects, real estate agents, tax consultants, air conditioning repairer - on and on and on it goes.
GOODWYN: Carpenter believes that given the already generous legal right to discriminate in Texas, the latest round of bills are primarily so that the Republican-dominated legislature can demonstrate to its powerful evangelical wing that they're on the ball. But if a religious freedom bill does pass, the anti-LGBT optics could be bad for business. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.