Texas House Considers Private School Vouchers, Anti-Transgender Bills That Threaten Religious Freedom

The Texas legislature is back in a special session called by Governor Greg Abbott (R) and the Senate has wasted no time passing troubling measures. Last week, the Texas Senate approved two bills that threaten religious freedom – a private school voucher bill and an anti-transgender bathroom ban.

Now the action moves to the Texas House of Representatives. Although the House voted down similar bills in the regular session and the Speaker has promised to block them, the fight is far from over for this legislation.

Private School Vouchers

Today’s hearing schedule includes a slew of bills dealing with public education. One, HB 253, would create a private school voucher. The Senate has already approved the corresponding SB 2, 22-9.

AU wrote to oppose the voucher bill because, among other things, vouchers primarily fund religious schools. That violates one of the core principles of religious freedom: No one should be forced to pay for someone else’s religious education. Public dollars should fund public schools, which serve all students and provide them with civil rights protections that private schools don’t have to.

In fact, Texas senators rejected an amendment to explicitly require private schools receiving vouchers to follow federal law that protects students with disabilities. They also rejected an amendment that voucher schools be held to same accountability standards as public schools. Sen. José Rodríguez (D-El Paso) sponsored the amendment, explaining that parents, teachers and others were concerned that “there is no accountability for the private schools that these students would be going to” and, under vouchers, it seems “we’re okay with the minimum standards of accreditation” for private schools.

Education advocates have rallied at the state capitol to demand that public schools get priority when it comes to public funds. If you live in Texas, please join us in urging state legislators to oppose private school vouchers.

The Texas legislature is considering two bills that are bad for religious freedom.

Anti-Trans Bathroom Bans

The Senate also approved SB 3, a bill that discriminates against transgender people by prohibiting them from using public bathrooms that align with their gender identity. It has been likened to North Carolina’s notorious HB 2, which faced a national backlash. The Texas House will consider a similar bill.

Public opposition to these bills is widespread: the Texas Association of Business is spending $1 million in advertising to fight them; major corporations like American Airlines, Apple and AT&T have been vocal in their opposition; oil, gas and chemical giants including BP America, Chevron North America E&P, Dow Chemical Co., Exxon Mobil Global Services and Halliburton oppose the legislation; and faith leaders, houses of worship and a religious denomination citing the “emotional and spiritual damage that discrimination does to transgender people” are opposed.

Many who support the legislation are pushing false, harmful and even dangerous rhetoric about transgender people. We wrote to dispel the myth that these bills are necessary for or even support religious freedom. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us all the right to believe, or not, as we see fit. It also ensures people can practice their faith, so long as they do not harm or discriminate against others. Using the restroom is a basic human need we all share and denying transgender people access to the bathroom harms and discriminates against them.

House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) so far has withstood political pressure from his own party to oppose both the voucher and the anti-transgender bills; he has likened the governor’s special session agenda to “manure.”

Straus isn’t the only House Republican standing in the governor’s way. For instance, Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) has called the anti-transgender bill unnecessary and has said the voucher proposal “would cripple funding for our rural public school districts.” He added: “As the special session continues to unfold, I am disappointed that our great state is continuing to waste so much time over the ‘bathroom debate.’ Especially since all the attention on this issue is smoke-screening a very serious threat facing rural Texas families, rural public schools, and even the economic survival of our state’s rural communities.” 

AU will closely monitor developments in Texas and will continue to oppose private school voucher schemes and any attempt to discriminate in the name of religion. You can stay informed about these issues and much more by signing up for our emails.