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Business Group Blasts Religious Freedom Proposals

Two proposed constitutional amendments designed to safeguard religious liberty would "devastate" economic development and set Texas on the ill-fated path Indiana just traveled, a leading business group said Tuesday.

Bill Hammond is the CEO of the Texas Association of Business.

Standing alongside Democrats, a representative for the state’s powerful business lobby Tuesday denounced two proposed amendments to the state constitution aimed at bolstering protection for people acting on religious beliefs, which detractors say would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. 

“These amendments are bad for business,” Bill Hammond, chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, said at a press conference. “They would devastate economic development, tourism and the convention business.”

It’s part of a larger debate taking place around the country, most notably in Indiana, where public backlash over a similar law forced the state’s governor to sign an amended version that included protections for gays and lesbians. The question Texas lawmakers face is how they should balance their obligation to protect minority groups with a commitment to religious liberty.

State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said he authored one of proposed amendments, which voters would have to approve, because religious liberty is “in the bedrock of what Texas, and even America, was founded on.” State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, authored the other.

Krause's HJR 125 would prohibit a government entity or homeowner's association from burdening a person's "free exercise of religion." Campbell's SJR 10 would similarly prohibit government from infringing on a person or religious organization's freedom of religion.

“I’ve yet to talk to somebody who thinks the protection of religious liberty is a bad idea,” Krause said.

But Democrats say the amendments are worded so broadly that they would permit discrimination against gays and lesbians by allowing businesses to deny them service.

“We’ve all seen the uproar in Indiana,” state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said at the press conference. “There’s absolutely no doubt that passing these amendments would bring the same uproar and condemnation to Texas.”

Earlier this year, state Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, withdrew a similar proposal after the business lobby voiced its opposition. Companies like Apple and American Airlines, which have a significant presence in Texas, have opposed similar legislation, Hammond said.

Texas already has a religious freedom act, passed in 1999, designed to protect a person’s “free exercise of religion.”

Krause said the law should be codified in the state’s constitution to give it more legitimacy, particularly in state court.

“Statutory law is good, but constitutional law gives it a little higher protection,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.  A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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