When I hear one end of the political spectrum using the arguments of what is typically their opponent, I know there is some imbalance in the political equilibrium. This tends to happen when one side goes too far to one extreme, and it often results in the old trope about strange bedfellows.
In this case when I clicked the Texas Monthly headline, “Campbell Faces Unexpected Opposition on Religious Liberties Bill,” I found Conservative Christians making the same arguments as LGBT activists against the language in Sen. Donna Campbell’s “Religious Freedom” bill as being too broad. Interesting? Now add to that, the events during Texas Muslim Capitol Day and the fact that there has been an uptick in online impressions regarding the practice of Sharia Law in Texas, and it left me asking if Campbell’s law, which was surely thought up as a defense in the “war on Christianity,” would also serve to protect other minority religious practices. And of course the answer is, “Yes.”
When I inquired about the possibility of unintended consequences with Campbell’s bill (as some legislators already have), Dan Quinn, the Communications Director for the Texas Freedom Network told me that I had put my finger, “on a big problem with the constitutional amendments from Campbell and Villalba,” and that, “either one would open a Pandora’s box of problems.” A problem because as Quinn sees it, it would, “almost certainly would lead to abuse of the law, allow people to use religion as a weapon to harm others, and undermine the fundamental principle that laws should apply to everyone.”
During a committee hearing last session on the proposal, Joe Pojman, the pro-life executive director of Alliance for Life, was concerned that the standard of “sincerely held religious belief,” was so broad it could be argued to apply to abortion.
The general consensus by all parties opposing the Constitutional Amendment was that religious freedom was already protected in Texas by a statute called the Texas Religious Freedom Act which sets the standard at, “substantially burdening a person’s free exercise of religion.” At the hearing when Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said that, “there are religious groups that have very, very different fundamental beliefs,” she was unlikely referring to Islam. But, by the current state of rhetoric coming from some fringe groups, and at least one legislator, it is safe to report that some view the practice of Sharia Law that way.
The right wing blog Breitbart’s headline says it all: “’Voluntary’ Sharia Tribunal In Texas: This Is How It Starts.” It referred to a tribunal set up to handle minor civil disputes according to Sharia as an option for people of Islamic faith. The rulings are not legally binding and do not circumvent local, state or federal laws, and they most certainly do not trump the Constitution.
One Dallas Morning News editorial even provocatively asked, “Is Sharia law in Texas such a bad thing?” The debate seems to be over in Alabama where voters approved a ban in November on Sharia Law in the state’s courtrooms by a margin of 72-28.
Still, there are continued attempts in Texas to outlaw the use of Sharia by Texas courts, something that is also viewed as redundant by legal and religious scholars. On the day of the incident involving Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) demanding Muslims visiting her office pledge allegiance to the US, Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) tweeted a welcome to “YOUR Capitol” adding that, “all Texans are always welcome in my office.” Unfortunately, he is also playing into the fear of Muslim’s by authoring HB 562 that would again — redundantly — outlaw “foreign law” in Texas.
Interestingly because Campbell’s bill would amend the state’s Constitution it would supercede any statute that was ruled to be in violation of it. Specifically, Campbell’s bill would add the following: “Government may not burden an individual’s or religious organization’s freedom of religion or right to act or refuse to act in a manner motivated by a sincerely held religious belief unless the government proves that the burden is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. For purposes of this subsection, the term “burden” includes indirect burdens such as withholding benefits, assessing penalties, and denying access to facilities or programs.
So much for that bill by Cecil Bell (R- Magnolia) that would dock the pay for County Clerks who issued marriage licenses to same sex couples.
The irony of all of this is that because the Constitution is the Supreme Law of the land in the United States and it must be applied to everyone equally, playing into the fear of Islam will more likely result in dealing with the law of unintended consequences than one based on legislative intent.
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Here is the rest of the statement from TFN’s Dan Quinn:
The language in these amendments is so vague and broad that it would almost certainly lead to abuse of the law, allow people to use religion as a weapon to harm others, and undermine the fundamental principle that laws should apply to everyone.
For example, a husband whose faith teaches that he is the absolute authority over a family could claim that domestic violence and child abuse laws burden the practice of his religion. An apartment manager whose religious beliefs dictate that a man should be the head of a household could refuse to rent – or could even evict – a single mother. Employers who belong to religious sects that preach white supremacy and anti-Semitism would almost certainly challenge laws that bar them from firing or refusing to hire people of color or Jews. A school counselor who believes homosexuality is a sin could insist on the right to tell an LGBT student that he or she is going to hell. Imagine the legal nightmare facing businesses with employees who argue they don’t have to follow company policies that are based on state laws or regulations that conflict with their religious beliefs. And imagine what could happen if an EMT whose religion teaches that gay people should be put to death were sent on an emergency call to aid someone who is LGBT and whose life was in danger. Could that EMT refuse to provide assistance? He or she could point to either Campbell’s or Villalba’s amendment and his religious beliefs as a defense.
The 1999 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed by a bipartisan majority and signed by Gov. Bush, included carefully crafted language that prevented this kind of abuse. The proposed constitutional amendments include none of that language. So there’s no telling how costly the lawsuits would be for taxpayers and businesses if either amendment were to pass. If legislators really want to protect religious freedom, we already have federal and state constitutional amendments as well as the existing Texas RFRA that do so.