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A Year Later, Texas Gay Marriage Debate Shifts

Hundreds of gay couples across Texas are reaching their one-year wedding anniversaries, but resistance to same-sex marriage hasn’t gone away, it’s just changed focus.

Couples embrace at the conclusion of the "Big Gay Wedding" ceremony on the south lawn of the Texas Capitol on July 4 after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June.

When Collin Acock became engaged to Shane Parsons in New York in August 2014, the Austin couple anticipated returning to New York to marry the next summer.

When they realized last year that the U.S. Supreme Court could legalize same-sex marriage nationwide in Obergefell v. Hodges, however, the "incredible possibility of us getting married at home in Texas came up," Acock said. They made plans to hold the ceremony immediately if that decision came down. On June 26, 2015, it did, and the couple promptly wed at the Travis County Courthouse.

A year later, like hundreds of other gay people in Texas, Acock will celebrate his first wedding anniversary on Sunday. "I'd never thought that that was going to be a possibility for me, for any gay people," said Acock, 37. "It just never was on my radar until it was becoming a reality."

The Texas Department of State Health Services doesn’t keep track of same-sex marriage numbers, but officials estimated that more than 465 couples received licenses in 10 counties within the first day. Chuck Smith, the chief executive officer of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said “thousands” have likely married since the ruling, and this weekend marks the anniversary of a “momentous decision.”

But settled law is not the same as settled politics, and resistance to same-sex marriage in Texas has not gone away — it’s just changed focus, according to lawmakers and advocacy groups.

Still angry about the Supreme Court’s mandate, some conservative lawmakers hope that it is someday overturned. In the meantime, they expect to propose a series of what they call religious liberty bills to blunt its impact. Those efforts worry liberal advocacy groups — Steve Rudner, with Equality Texas, called them “backlash” to the marriage decision — who argue such legislation is discriminatory. 

Both sides agree that last year’s landmark ruling ignited a debate over social issues in Texas that will demand the attention of the next Legislature.

Conservatives pivot to religious liberty

Nationwide, celebrations greeted the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. But in Texas, whose longtime ban on same-sex marriage was overturned, some lawmakers made it clear that the debate was not over.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick quickly condemned the decision as federal overreach. Attorney General Ken Paxton declared “religious liberty” the next fight, charging that “the debate over the issue of marriage has increasingly devolved into personal and economic aggression against people of faith who have sought to live their lives consistent with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Paxton issued an opinion suggesting that county clerks could refuse to hand out same-sex marriage licenses but might face litigation, as one later did.

A year later, opposition to same-sex marriage for religious reasons has become the focal point of demands that the Texas Legislature act in response.

“I do think that it is very important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that part of religious freedom is that citizens do have that inherent right to not have to do things that put them at odds with their religion,” said state Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia.

State Sen. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who described the ruling as an “assault on family values,” expects that charge to be a focus when lawmakers convene next year.

“I’m not going to be surprised at whatever level on both sides this is attacked,” Perry said.

While Perry has not seen specific legislation, he hopes the Legislature addresses the rights of businesses to choose whom to work with — such as same-sex couples — and suggested “that’ll be one of the more contentious debates.”

Some laws have already passed: Before the Supreme Court decision last year, the 84th Legislature passed the Pastor Protection Act, which allows clergy members to refuse to conduct same-sex marriages. Some lawmakers have suggested more responses along those lines, such as allowing religious adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or granting tax accommodations to religious organizations.

Bell said he would not be surprised to see proposals to limit the abilities of cities to extend anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender people. Lawmakers also expect to debate transgender people’s bathroom access.

Perry argues that the federal government has forced Texas to address the issue. “It will unfortunately take up time during the session,” he said. “I hate that, but at the end of the day, it’s important. The underlying principle here is that we had a Supreme Court that overran.”

Freedom or discrimination?

Conservative rhetoric about religious freedom alarms gay rights advocates, who often refer to religious liberty legislation as “license to discriminate” laws. They say they are preparing to fight an onslaught of legislation they view as hostile to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Smith, of Equality Texas, described the debate as one that is not partisan, but “reasonable people versus extremists.”

“What they’re doing is turning to these religious refusal laws in which they try and give an out for folks,” said Dan Quinn, communications director of the liberal Texas Freedom Network. “That’s not religious freedom. That’s discrimination, plain and simple. They’re trying to change the terms of the battle.”

Perry resists that argument, maintaining that the views of a minority should not be imposed on the majority. Bell said his positions are far from extreme.

In addition to lobbying against legislation they oppose, gay advocacy groups plan to put fort their own legislation to address challenges they say gay Texans still face.

State Sen. José R. Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said he plans to file proposals to take Texas’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage off the books and “clean up” the language of state codes and statutes to reflect the Supreme Court ruling.

Rodríguez also expects Democrats to call for a statewide ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in areas such as employment, public accommodations and housing.

Other states have passed similar laws. Still, Bell said he doubts it will find traction in Texass Republican-controlled House or Senate.

Acock, who recently started working at Equality Texas, said those challenges are on his mind this weekend, especially in light of the recent shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. There are married people in Texas, he noted, who can still be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

That didnt really hit me until this week as were coming up on this celebration,” he said. We just have a lot of work to do.

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