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Analysis: A Defense, but Where's the Threat?

State leaders are sending a signal that lawmakers are going to continue walking the margins between church and state, and religion and politics, through another election and legislative cycle.

A look at the dais on the Texas Senate floor on Oct. 8, 2015.

It says “In God We Trust” right there above the dais in the Texas Senate, but some of the state’s top leaders believe the Almighty could use some help.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked a Senate committee to study “religious liberty” between now and the start of the 85th Legislature in 2017. Attorney General Ken Paxton joined the chorus with supportive news releases and letters to legislative leaders urging them to tighten state laws in the face of recent court rulings and investigations that he said threaten religious liberties.

It’s a signal that state lawmakers are going to continue walking the margins between church and state, and religion and politics, through another election and legislative cycle.

Patrick’s assignment — one of more than a dozen subjects he asked senators to study over the next 15 months — comes straight out of the headlines, or, if you prefer, the latest court rulings. It topped his list of interim charges: “Examine measures to affirm First Amendment religious liberty protections in Texas, along with the relationship between local ordinances and state and federal law. Make recommendations to ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Interim charges, or directives, are routine. This is the way the legislative wing of government works, and the preparatory stuff they do now is what makes it possible to blow through 6,000-plus pieces of proposed legislation in 140 days every two years.

The political spin is also normal. Lawmakers get elected by partisan voters who want them to do the things they promised to do while they were campaigning. Patrick asked for studies on eminent domain, union dues, ethics, environmental regulation and water rights, just to name a few of the political and policy hot spots in the road ahead.

And the religious scent is also familiar, particularly in a Legislature where religious conservatives have gained significant numbers in recent elections (the Tribune’s God & Governing project offers a deeper look into that).

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on same-sex marriage prompted Patrick to invite lawmakers to start the conversation now.

Paxton’s “me, too” sailed in soon after the lieutenant governor’s plans were announced. The attorney general’s identical letters to Patrick and to House Speaker Joe Straus mirror his recent campaign letters to supporters, both in the issues he chose to write about and in the way that he wrote about those issues. He’s found a text that works whether he’s speaking from a lectern or a pulpit.

In an email from his campaign, Paxton wrote about a recent appearance:

I outlined my view that religious freedom is the fundamental building block of our society. Despite that, increasingly people are telling us that our religious beliefs have no place in society.

We’re being told that we have to allow our beliefs to take a backseat to other people’s agendas. It’s an ugly and frightening turn of events for a nation that was built on freedom.

There’s a growing movement, empowered by the media, that insists that faith and the faithful should have no voice in the public debate.

His letters to Patrick and Straus echo that, and attempt to frame the discussions lawmakers will have during the next election year leading into the next legislative session.

As you know, many Texans are frustrated and fearful that the fundamental values and freedoms that define Texas and America are under assault. The essence of liberty is rooted in the dignity of the human person. A society which proclaims to be just must recognize that every human life, including unborn babies, has the right to live. Moreover, human dignity requires that a person be free to exercise his or her religious faith and that no government will discriminate or oppress a person based on the person’s thoughts or beliefs.

The former state legislator — Paxton has served in both the House and the Senate — recommended new laws that might be passed without detailing whatever wrongs he is trying to right. He wrote about his investigation of allegations against Planned Parenthood, for instance, with no indication he has found any truth to them. And his lawsuits stemming from collateral issues to the same-sex marriage ruling will depend on finding cases where someone's rights were violated.

He’s sounding the alarm without evidence of a fire. It almost sounds like something is in danger, that there is an imminent threat and that someone — a politician, perhaps? — is here to protect you from it.

That works for officeholders like Patrick and Paxton on the policy level. It works with religious conservatives in the political audience, too. 

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government Dan Patrick Joe Straus Ken Paxton Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate