Gay Rights Advocates Offer Change to Same-Sex Marriage Bill

For some gay rights advocates, a bill in the Texas Legislature that would allow clergy to refuse to marry same-sex couples would be acceptable if it just included four more words.

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, sits at his desk on March 16, 2015.
State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, sits at his desk on March 16, 2015.  Marjorie Kamys Cotera

*Editor's note: This story has been updated.

For some gay rights advocates, a bill in the Texas Legislature that would allow clergy to refuse to marry same-sex couples would be acceptable if it just included four more words.

As the Senate State Affairs Committee heard testimony Monday morning on Senate Bill 2065 by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, Chuck Smith, the executive director of Equality Texas, asked for the legislation to include language making it clear that the bill only applies to marriage ceremonies. Smith wanted to ensure that the legislation would not prohibit the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses by officials in a secular context. 

But Estes told committee that he did not intend to accept that amendment after pastors testified against the bill for several hours.

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Smith requested that language in the bill saying that "a clergy or minister may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services” be changed to "a clergy or minister acting in that capacity may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services." 

"We are fully supportive of religious liberties," Smith told the committee in the morning.

Currently, same-sex marriage is banned in Texas. A challenge to that ban is pending in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on four same-sex marriage cases in other states in June. Some expect the Supreme Court could rule in favor of striking down same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

A letter addressed to Estes from Equality Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Freedom Network said adding the language to the bill would "not only allay our remaining concerns, but allow our organizations to support this legislation." 

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the committee’s chairwoman, said she hoped a consensus would be reached. 

The legislation faced heat from Democrats at Monday’s committee hearing. 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, criticized the bill because it did not define "solemnize" or "religious organization." Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, asked if clergy could use the legislation to refuse to marry interracial couples. 

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"If it's a discriminatory act, then I don't think they should be able to hide behind the First Amendment or hide behind their faith," Ellis said. 

The committee hearing also drew testimony from many supporters of the bill, some of whom compared same-sex marriage to bestiality and said forcing pastors to perform same-sex marriages is "bigoted."

"Who are the bullies? The bigots? The haters? Should we not consider these instances hate crimes?" Beverly Roberts of Concerned Women for America asked the committee. 

SB 2065 was filed Tuesday, well past the filing deadline. The Senate voted to suspend its rules to introduce the legislation. A committee hearing was scheduled just two days later. Democrats delayed the bill's hearing, requesting more time to study the legislation. 

Last week, state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, issued a statement comparing the legislation to the controversial Indiana religious freedom law that drew national attention this year. 

"The lack of transparency and notice to the public is shocking," Martinez Fischer said. "Whatever rules the Senate suspended to bring this up, they should suspend again to bring it down. I am objecting, and I ask that all Texans and businesses who support equality to stand up and fight now."