The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed legislation that would protect lawyers who have sincerely held religious beliefs from losing their law licenses based on any rule or policy by the State Bar of Texas.
Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has said that one reason he carried the legislation was because of a model rule by the American Bar Association that would prohibit attorneys from discriminating against LGBTQ people, according to the Dallas Morning News. The State Bar of Texas has not adopted the ABA’s proposed LGBTQ anti-discrimination rule, but the new law would protect attorneys from potential sanctions.
State Bar President Joe Longley said he’s never heard of a case in which the bar disciplined a lawyer based on his or her religious beliefs, and he can’t recall any lawyers discussing the topic with him. He hadn’t been following SB 17 through the legislative process.
“It’s not high on my radar screen,” said Longley, who added that the bar doesn’t have a position on the legislation.
The version of the legislation that the Senate passed said that state licensing agencies couldn’t adopt any rule, regulation or policy that penalized a licensed professional’s ability to seek or renew his license based on a religious belief. The state couldn’t adopt rules or policies that burdened a licensed professional’s free exercise of religion, freedom of speech about religious topics, or membership in a religious organization.
The bill doesn’t mean to stop the state from taking action to ensure professionals follow the standard of care or practice in their profession. It’s not meant, for instance, to be a reason for a professional to fail to pay dues.
SB 17 would, however, provide a professional who had a religious belief an avenue to assert it as a defense to a claim in an administrative hearing or a judicial proceeding, as long as the matter did not involve alleged sexual misconduct or the prosecution of an offense. The professional also could seek injunctive relief if a state agency violated SB 17’s provisions.
During debate on the bill, Perry said he didn’t mean for the legislation to target any group, but rather to protect licensed professionals from losing their license because of their religion, reported the Dallas Morning News.
However, critics of the bill have said it’s an attempt to allow discrimination against LGBTQ people. The Senate voted against one amendment to the bill that would have made LGBTQ discrimination impermissible.
The controversial legislation drew scores of witnesses during a March 25 hearing before the Senate State Affairs Committee. Among seven people who testified to support the bill were representatives of the conservative group Texas Values and the religious-liberty nonprofit law firm First Liberty Institute. There were more than 50 people who testified in opposition to the bill, including people from associations representing LGBTQ people, the American Civil Liberties Union, religious groups, social workers’ and counselors’ associations, tourism groups and more.
Lt. Gen. Dan Patrick said in a statement that religious liberty has always been one of his top priorities.
“Senate Bill 17 will ensure that no Texan will ever have to choose between their job and their faith,” he said.
The bill now heads to the Texas House.
Read the Senate version here.