Religious leaders are stepping into the contentious debate in Texas over the proposed "bathroom bill," looking to assert their influence in a discussion that until now has been largely shaped by the business lobby and LGBT advocates.

It was evident Thursday at meetings at two churches in Austin. In one, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the bill's biggest champion, privately huddled with a group of pastors about supporting Senate Bill 6. At another, various faith leaders gathered before reporters to express opposition to it.

The bill would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on “biological sex." The bill has drawn national attention following the fallout in North Carolina, which last year passed a similar measure, prompting charges of discrimination and some economic consequences including the NBA pulling an All-Star Game from the state, the NCAA moving some championship games and some performers canceling concerts.

Patrick frequently compares the battle over Senate Bill 6 to the fight surrounding Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which voters defeated in 2015 amid similar claims about men entering women's bathrooms. The religious community was most prominently drawn into the HERO debate when then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker subpoenaed the sermons of pastors who opposed the ordinance.

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A number of people involved in that fight made the trip to Hyde Park Baptist Church Thursday to hear about Senate Bill 6 at an event organized by the conservative Texas Pastor Council. The turnout for the closed-press briefing included Patrick; Attorney General Ken Paxton; state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, the Brenham Republican who authored the bill; state Sen. Bob Hall, an Edgewood Republican who coauthored the legislation; and Rafael Cruz, the preacher father of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. 

"Fundamentally, first and foremost, this is a moral question," said Rev. Dave Welch, a spokesman for the Texas Pastor Council. "Should we protect the privacy and safety of our women and children? It’s profound that we’re even asking the question." 

As the briefing got underway, about 50 protesters were gathered near the entrance, greeting pastors as they trickled in. One person, dressed up as the prophet Moses, held two signs surrounding his gray-bearded face that together read, "LET MY PEOPLE GO TO THE BATHROOM." 

Another place of worship across the street, Trinity United Methodist Church, seemed to be aware of the event. "RELIGION IS NO REASON TO DISCRIMINATE," read a sign out front. Below the sign was a table with coffee, apparently for the protesters. 

A coalition of faith leaders, including several reverends and a rabbi, offered a similar message Thursday at a press conference at First United Methodist Church near the Capitol, aiming to equate the "bathroom bill" and additional anti-LGBT measures filed this session to discriminatory acts that run contrary to their religions' values.

"Today, there is a systematic effort underway to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens in this state," said Taylor Fuerst, a pastor at First United Methodist Church. "When such an injustice is done in the name of religion ... faith leaders and people of faith cannot be silent. Our faith, our god calls us to stand up and speak out, and that's why we're here today." 

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Fuerst also drew a parallel to the HERO debate and the current one over SB 6.

"They found what worked in Houston was to galvanize a certain branch of the faith community behind defeating [HERO] by using fear," Fuerst said. "Those who are working for the passage of SB 6 and similar legislation found that approach worked and said, 'Hey, we can use that.'"

The religious community had already entered the picture earlier this week, when Episcopal Church leaders suggested they could pull their triennial General Convention from Austin next year. In a letter Monday to House Speaker Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican who has expressed deep reservations about SB 6, the leaders wrote they are "firmly opposed to this legislation and condemn its discriminatory intent." 

After his closed-door briefing with pastors early Thursday, Patrick addressed the Texas Business Leadership Council's policy summit in downtown Austin. He did not respond to a reporter when asked what he had discussed with the pastors hours earlier. But in his remarks to the business group, Patrick continued to push SB 6, predicting there would be an "exodus from our public schools" if it doesn't become law.

"We're telling businesses do what you want — do what you want to do," Patrick said, apparently referring to a bill provision that backers say would allow private businesses to set their own bathroom policy. "I've seen a long list of businesses opposing this bill, but I haven't seen a long list of businesses saying, 'Next week we're going to start allowing men into the ladies bathroom in our restaurant, in our school.'" 

"Let's see them stand up and say, 'We actually support boys and girls using the shower in the 1oth grade,'" Patrick added. 

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