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Abbott: "Civil Discourse" Needed on Religious Freedom

A day after state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, came under fire for instructing staff to ask Muslim visitors to her office to pledge their allegiance to the U.S., Gov. Greg Abbott called for civil discussions "so that everyone has the opportunity to weigh in on their beliefs."

Students take the Pledge of Allegiance as protesters shout on Jan. 29, 2015.

A day after freshman state Rep. Molly White, R-Belton, came under fire for instructing staff to ask Muslim visitors to her office to pledge their allegiance to the U.S., Gov. Greg Abbott weighed in on the matter, saying the state needs “civil open debate of hotly contested issues in the state."

Abbott was asked about White's statements on Friday after he delivered remarks to the Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars convention. "Texas values are strong enough that we can have a civil discourse about issues like this, and it must be done civilly so that everyone has the opportunity to weigh in on their beliefs," Abbott said. "And we can address it after we have everyone weigh in."

More than 100 Muslims — mostly children — made their way to Austin on Thursday to celebrate Texas Muslim Capitol Day, which began in 2003 and brings members of Texas' Muslim community to the Capitol to learn about the political process and meet state lawmakers.

In a Facebook post, White explained the instructions she left for her staff on how to handle Muslim visitors to her office.

"I did leave an Israeli flag on the reception desk in my office with instructions to staff to ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws," she posted on Facebook. "We will see how long they stay in my office."

In response to White's statement, the Council on American-Islamic Relations on Thursday sent a letter to House Speaker Joe Straus asking whether White had violated ethics rules by instructing her staff to ask Muslim visitors to her office to declare their allegiance to the United States.

"Our ethics question is: Has Rep. White violated any House rules in creating such an internal office policy that is selectively being enforced to discriminate against certain religious minorities trying to meet with her or her staff?" the letter asks. "Are House members prohibited from making constituents take oaths before meeting with their elected representatives or House staff?"

In a statement released Thursday, Straus said: "Legislators have a responsibility to treat all visitors just as we expect to be treated — with dignity and respect. Anything else reflects poorly on the entire body and distracts from the very important work in front of us." 

Robert McCaw, the council's government affairs manager, said Friday morning that the council was thankful for Straus' "statement of support" because it "re-emphasized that Muslims and all other Americans have a right to the Texas state Capitol."

At that point, the group had not received response from Straus specific to the ethics complaint. 

Straus' office responded to the council Friday afternoon in an email. Texas House ethics adviser Frank Battle wrote that the Housekeeping Resolution passed by the 84th Legislature allows state representatives to "set policies" regarding their office space as long as those policies don't violate laws protecting civil rights and civil liberties.

"There is nothing in the House rules or in the Housekeeping Resolution relating to a House member requiring a constituent to take an oath," Battle wrote in the email, which was provided to The Texas Tribune.

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