December 2018 Church & State | People & Events

Religious Right activists in Texas have filed two federal lawsuits designed to strike down laws in Austin that protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination.

U.S. Pastor Council, a group based in Houston, argues that an Austin ordinance that shields LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment is unconstitutional because it does not specifically exempt houses of worship.

Proponents of the law dispute that, pointing out that the ordinance exempts faith-based schools and organizations, reported the Austin American-Statesman.

Other backers of the law noted that the right of houses of worship to hire people from their own faith perspectives is already protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“I know of no instance in which a church or religious association has been forced to hire a gay person in violation of their religious beliefs,” Dan Quinn, communications director of the Texas Freedom Network, said. “This lawsuit isn’t about protecting religious freedom. This is about sweeping away anti-discrimination protections that have been on the books for decades.”

“These member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance,” the lawsuit, filed in early October, asserts. “They will not consider practicing homosexuals or transgendered people for any type of church employment (or position in the clergy).”

A few days later, a group called Texas Values filed another lawsuit that is much broader. This lawsuit targets an Austin public-accommodation ordinance that bars secular businesses from denying services to members of the LGBTQ community.

The American-Statesman reported that the second lawsuit asserts that business owners should be permitted to refuse to hire “practicing homosexuals or transgendered people” as employees; decline to rent to tenants “who are engaged in non-marital sex of any sort, including homosexual behavior”; decline all business that supports same-sex marriages; refuse to provide health care benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees; and require people to use the bathrooms that correspond to their “biological sex.”

The lawsuit asserts that the ordinance runs afoul of the Texas Constitution’s religious freedom provisions as well as a 1999 state law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law says state and local governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion” unless it is seeking to further a compelling public interest.

Chuck Smith of Equality Texas, an LGBT-rights group, criticized both lawsuits.

“These are lawsuits whose purpose is to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people and attack municipalities that enact ordinances that reflect the views and values of residents of those cities,” Smith said.

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