The Strangest of Bedfellows: On Celia Israel and the Pastor Protection Act

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Good day Austin:

Toward the end of Friday’s very long Senate debate on open carry, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who opposes open carry, lent his support, out of concern about the potential for racial profiling by police, to an amendment by Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, that would prohibit police from stopping someone simply because they were openly carrying a handgun to see if that person was properly licensed.

“I’ve heard of strange political bedfellows,” Ellis said on the Senate floor. “This has been the strangest bed I’ve ever slept in.”

OK. But a day earlier, across the Rotunda in the House, there was the bed that Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, found herself in with Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, and his Pastor Protection Act.

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From Chuck Lindell in the Statesman: Marriage bill OK’d as Democrats drop opposition

With Democrats dropping their opposition, a bill to protect religious objections to gay marriage sailed through the Texas House on Thursday, gaining initial approval on a 141-2 vote.

Final House approval is expected Friday, sending the bill to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he will enthusiastically sign it into law.

Named the Pastor Protection Act by supporters, Senate Bill 2065 would shield clergy and houses of worship from lawsuits if they refuse to marry a same-sex couple based on a sincerely held religious belief.

Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, said the measure would make no change to the state’s marriage laws beyond stating that pastors cannot be forced to perform a wedding ceremony that violates their beliefs.

“This bill is a shield and not a sword,” Sanford told the House. “It makes it clear that government cannot use civil or criminal actions as punishment” for refusing to marry a same-sex couple.

Democrats said the U.S. Constitution already protects pastors who make religious-based choices on who they will or will not marry. After closely questioning Sanford to establish that SB 2065 would apply only to clergy acting in their religious capacity, Democrats dropped objections to the bill, with only Reps. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, and Armando Walle, D-Houston, voting against it.

(note: the next day Canales and Walle would vote for final passage, though Canales later corrected the record to indicate that he intended to remain a “no” vote.)

SB 2065 left the Senate last week on a 20-9 vote that was split largely along party lines.

Rep. Celia Israel, an openly lesbian Democrat from Austin, urged House members to vote for the bill, saying it merely reflects First Amendment protections for religious practice.

Israel also assured pastors who oppose gay weddings that they don’t need to be concerned if the U.S. Supreme Court affirms the right to same-sex marriage in a ruling expected this summer.

“Some fine day, my partner and I are going to be able to get married in the great state of Texas,” she said. “When that day comes, rest assured to those pastors and preachers who take a more literal interpretation of the Bible, my partner and I of 20 years will not be going to them to bless our union. I will be going to someone who loves and respects us for who we are.”

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I talked with Israel Saturday, and she explained what led her to climb into that bed.

 Well, there’s people around me that I trust. Glen Maxey advised me – “What if we turned the whole board green. And let’s just agree. We all agree on freedom of religion.”

So Glen and I have been friends ever since the Ann Richards campaign. He was heading up the Travis County get-out-the-vote organization, and I was working on the statewide field organization. So we have known each other a long time and have been through a lot of battles together. You learn over time when to pick your battles, and I think this was a way to show, we are also people of faith.

Maxey, who served in the House from 1991 to 2003, was the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature. I ran into him at the Capitol after Thursday’s vote.

When a bill like this comes along it is very important for the LGBT community to see our leaders very clearly explain that this is not a knee-jerk kind of issue, that there should be no conflict between organized religion and the LGBT community on this kind of constitutional issue.

The fact that this bill restated the constitutional principle – while we all know it was done for sort of a different kind of motive – the way to take the energy out of that was to simply say we agree. And as you, saw the air went out of the balloon.

After Thursday’s vote, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, recalled for me that Maxey had pulled off a similar maneuver some yeas ago. I asked Maxey about that.

There was a bill by (Rep.) Elliott Naishtat that said that the state of Texas would recognize protective orders from other states for domestic violence and (Rep.) Warren Chisum did an amendment to say – “unless the protective order was for two men or two women who had a marriage in another state, and that we would not recognize their protective rights. The whole point of that was to get a record vote (to be used against members in the next campaign). And a lot of people got really pissed off – we still had a lot of rural Democrats then, who said, “This is just for the record vote.”

And so when it happened, I went to the back mic and said, “Let’s all vote for it, everybody vote aye on this anti-gay amendment because then they will have no record to use against you. And the whole House stood up, a green board, and he pulled down the amendment, and it took the air out of it.

(note: Chisum also authored the same-sex marriage ban state voters overwhelmingly approved as a constitutional amendment in 2005.)

Here was the 1997 report on Maxey’s strategy from Ken Herman and Suzanne Gamboa

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and sponsor of the gay marriage bill, tried one more time Tuesday night to bring up the issue but got snookered by the House’s only openly gay member, Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Austin.

Chisum sought to get colleagues to make a political statement against gay marriages by barring Texas from recognizing protective orders issued in same-sex marriages from other states. He acknowledged the amendment would probably be stripped in a House-Senate conference committee.

“I think everything we do here is a political statement,” Chisum said in acknowledging his motive, “and certainly this will make a political statement. There are members here would like to make their record on this issue.”

Then, in one of the session’s slicker maneuvers, Maxey urged the House to make the vote a hollow one.

“I’m asking all of my colleagues in this House to vote yes on this amendment and deny Mr. Chisum the political record he wants,” said Maxey, drawing applause and hugs from colleagues.

The vote never occurred.

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Back to Israel:

I didn’t know what I as going to say until I went up to the mic. My staff asked, “Did you write that out?” I said, “No, it just came from the heart.”

I’ve gotten a lot of good comments from both sides of the aisle. My colleagues either secretly agree with gay marriage and didn’t want have to sign onto this bill, or they really did believe in the intent of the bill and respect the way in which I presented it. I’ve always found that when you’re coming from a good place and you’re speaking from the heart, that’s all you really can do.

I wanted to say, “On a day that’s supposed to be as special as our marriage, why would I go to somebody who doesn’t agree with who I am, the essence of who I am?” I’m a 50-year-old woman, I don’t need fixin’, I’m not going to get converted, nor am I going to go to somebody who disagrees with me to say, `Hey, would you mind holding a wedding for us?'”

Why would I go to someone who is diametrically opposed to who I am? 

So I felt like that needed to be said from the podium, and the fact that I happened to be gay turned out to be a good way to make the point.

As the vote approached:

I had a lot of conversations with my colleagues on the floor. I said, “I’m thinking of voting for it.” And they said, “Really?” And they said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “I’m not sure but I think I am going to vote for it.” I was just kind of kicking through it in my mind and as it approached, I was telling people, “Yeah, I’m going to vote for it.”

And that’s when they gave me the look, “Are you sure?:

There’s a certain amount of my colleagues who are protective of me. They are in the Democratic Party – unfortunately there’s not enough members of the Republican Party who can do this – but several of my colleagues who are protective of me and want to know, “Are you OK. Are you doing OK?” And I’ll say, “I’m OK,” and they’ll say, “Are you really OK?,” because they want to know that I’m being treated just like any other member. So they wanted to say, “You sure you’re going to vote yes?” And then, “OK, if you’re going to vote yes we’re with you.”

She wasn’t able to let all of her Democratic colleagues know what she was going to do before she did it, including her desk mate, ideological soul mate and fellow Austinite, Rep. Donna Howard.

Not even my desk mate knew. She was very happy for me. Afterward, she said it was a good move.

I did talk to Rafael Anchia because he’s a very vocal supporter of LGBT rights, and he had told me he was going to say a few words, and I said, “Let me bounce this off you.” He said, “I think that’s great.” He reassured me that I was headed in right direction.

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I talked to Anchia Saturday about Israel’s move, and about his own remarks during the debate on the Pastor Protection Act. He said:

Where you sit is where you stand.

I said gay people get married in the district I represent every day. The district I represent includes the biggest LGBT church in the country – the Cathedral of Hope – and I’ve had the pastor from the Cathedral of Hope – he was my pastor of the day here. I worship there. When my mom comes in for Easter we take her there, the kids and the whole thing.

I don’t ever want there to occur a situation where one of the pastors is ostracized from an order for marrying gay people.

One of the leaders of Dallas theology married a couple of gay people but did so in a way that the order wouldn’t come down on him, but it sent up all kinds of red flags in Dallas.

From Dianne Solis in the Dallas Morning News, in February 2014:

After 53 years, Jack Evans will finally get hitched to his life partner George Harris on Saturday, believed to be the first public same-sex wedding in Dallas officiated by a United Methodist minister.

The union has qualified religious acceptance. There’s open debate in the United Methodist Church, which officially views homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

But the well-known minister celebrating the wedding — the 85-year-old Rev. Bill McElvaney — says “love over law” matters most.

“The Methodist church is on the wrong side of the Gospel on this — and history,” McElvaney said.

Anchia’s point – McElvaney could also be the pastor being protected under the Pastor Protection Act.

I  think that deal cuts both ways. I also think the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment already protects this, so it’s kind of unnecessary.

When Celia was talking to me, I said, “Let’s not fall into their trap of being against this, let’s be for it, let’s own it, lets co-opt it” You know what, that whole media cycle was about us co-opting it.

It’s a total Art of War move. They advance and you move back.

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The “enemy,” in this case, was, Anchia said, confounded.

Anchia:

They all expected us to speak against it. I had some Republicans come up to me and they were scrumming and huddling over there, saying, “Do I need to vote against this now?”

Having made up her mind to speak in favor of the bill, Israel said:

 I went up to the parliamentarian and said, “I want to say a few words in favor,” and they said, “OK,” and so, whoever I hadn’t talked to on the floor, when I made my comments, that gave them the permission to vote for the Pastor Protection Bill.

The Pastor Protection Bill, she said, was unlike some other legislation ostensibly targeting LGBT rights.

Here, for example, is the description by Equality Texas, an LGBT rights group, of HB 2553, sponsored by Rep. Molly White:

HB 2553 creates a right of refusal for any business to violate local non-discrimination laws if the business owner believes that serving a customer whose marriage the business owner dislikes would violate that business owners religious beliefs.

Goods that are made available to the public should be made available without discrimination based on race, religion, nation of origin, sex, ability, veteran status, sexual orientation, family status or gender identity or expression. Texans value the right of any person to work hard and strive for the American dream. Using religion as a weapon to excuse discrimination flies in the face of Texas values.

As opposed to Sanford’s bill, that kind of bill, Israel said:

… would have been more outlandish and ultimately harmful to Texas’ image, to say bakeshops across the state could discriminate and, you know, just silly language. I think years from now we will look back on this time and say, “Why were we arguing about this stuff?”

And ultimately in my comments (on the Patient Protection Act), I didn’t mean to simply say, your concerns are not valid. But I did want to say we don’t need to spend a lot of time arguing about this.  We agree with you.

But it gave me an opportunity to give them my perspective from my family’s view and I think that was helpful.

The only other out LGBT member of the Legislature is Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, who is in her second term. Gonzalez, who has identified herself as pan-sexual, had weeks ago arrived at the place Israel ended up, signing up (along with Democrats Sylvester Turner of Houston and René Oliveira of Brownsville) as a co-author of Sanford’s bill.

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Gonzalez explains her thought process:

I decided early on to support the bill, but I daily struggled with whether to continue to support it.. It was a daily struggle.

One of my main goals as a legislator is to fight discrimination of all forms, and I think one of the main arguments against LGBT justice that the right uses is that we are impeding upon their religion. So, of course, I want to be respectful even if I disagree with some ideas, even if I think some of them are hurtful or hateful. I don’t want to be judgmental.

So processing the bill was difficult, not necessarily in policy ways but in philosophical ways. The policy is a reaffirmation of the First Amendment which is fine. But I knew that some people were pushing this bill not out of care or concern for discrimination against pastors, but more fearful or hurtful of LGBT folks.

I don’t think that was the author’s intent but that was other people’s intent – not necessarily even people in this  building. In thinking about this bill I didn’t want to give credit to the movement that was supporting bigotry and hate.

But as a legislator I think it’s our role to always take a high road, always think complexly about these issues, and so, while I was worried about the political movement, the policy was fine and I think there was a possibility for a statement to come from someone within the LGBT community that there is space for both religious protection and LGBT justice, and if we can work to find that space, we can really work to end discrimination on multiple fronts.

It shows people on the right that here are people on the progressive side who are trying to find a space for everyone to co-exist.

Gonzalez, who arrived in the House with Sanford last session, said that part of her decision-making to sign onto the bill was because Sanford, who asked her to join the bill, was someone she knew and come to trust.

I trusted Scott and knew he would be honest with me about the direction the bill was going. He was a person of integrity. He didn’t take any possibly bad amendments.

She said she shared her thinking with Israel, who was elected to fill the unexpired term of Mark Strama in 2014, and then elected to a full two-year term.

I turned to Celia as someone I trust and love very much and so I kind of just told her my process.

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Meanwhile, the rights organizations monitoring the bill were moving in the same direction.

From Dan Quinn at Texas Freedom Network:

TFN, Equality Texas and ACLU of Texas had already persuaded the author to revise the bill in committee to ensure that religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals, could not discriminate against married same-sex couples.
When the bill came to floor for a vote, we asked Democrats to clarify with the author that the legislative intent of the bill was only to make clear that clergy could not be forced, when acting as clergy and not when working in a civil capacity such as a justice of the peace, to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs.
That right is already protected by the Constitution and state law. The Senate author had already made that legislative intent clear during Senate floor debate. If Democrats could get that clarification for legislative intent on the House floor (which they did), we simply encouraged them to vote their conscience.
But Equality Texas also asked Rep. Israel and Rep. Gonzalez if they could find a way to vote for the bill  as a way to show that equality for LGBT families is not in conflict with religious freedom.
Given that the rhetoric from the bill’s supporters has been so vicious and offensive — in some cases even comparing marriage between loving gay and lesbian couples to promoting bestiality and pedophilia — you can see why that might be a tough request to make. But the decision to go to the floor and say what they did about the bill was theirs.
It’s important to understand that the bill’s supporters had spent months arguing that, if the Supreme Court strikes down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, clergy could be forced to marry gay and lesbian couples. That wasn’t true, and the fear-mongering by the bill’s supporters was shameful. I think Democrats did a good job making that clear and also reminding folks that there are plenty of clergy who look forward to presiding over those marriages.
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Israel said she and Maxey thought that, better than a board that was a mix of green lights, signifying “aye,” and white lights for “present, not voting,” it would be more powerful to turn the whole board green.

Like Gonzalez, Israel, who is also originally from El Paso (she came to Austin to attend UT), has taken great pains building relationships across party lines for her core legislative issues, which have nothing to do with her sexual identity.

If you’ve seem me on the floor, working the floor, I took very seriously my pledge to work across the aisle. House Bill 76 (for online voter registration) had 76 co-authors. Most of them were Republicans. On the floor, the Bus on Shoulder Bill (allowing buses to ride on the shoulder to reduce congestion) got out of here with 105 votes.

I’m in the minority and I have to work hard, to go one-on-one with my colleague. I have talked to most of the Republicans on the floor, although I’m a new member, about things other than LGBT issues. It’s about  mobility and congestion relief mostly, and on-line voter registration. Those are my big issues. I think they respect that I want their support on issues that are really important to the state of Texas.

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They want to put you in a silo – that liberal, LGBT-loving, tree-hugging … It’s like, “No.”

(Mary Gonzalez) was Ag Chick, I’m Transportation Chick, and this is supposed to be the Transportation Session. 

I’ve enjoyed it very much. It is hard work but when you put in your time and you get to know your colleagues on what are big picture issues – I call them Big Rocks – then it only helps you in the end when it’s time to tell your personal story at the front mic.

I didn’t expect I’d be talking about my marriage on the front mic –in the way that I did. 

I’m talking to Glen, “OK, let’s think about this,” then I’m on the floor. 

Being on the floor of the House of Representatives is pretty heady. Here you are in these cathedral-like chambers and not even my staff is allowed on the floor, so you’re in pretty rare space.

I’m just glad I had the presence of mind to allow my head and my heart to speak honestly, and my colleagues have been overwhelmingly supportive of it.

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And I felt obliged to talk about my religious upbringing as well. You can’t just take it away from me that I’m a good Catholic girl.

In the age of Pope Francis, I’’m feeling more and more supported by Rome. I do love what the Pope has to say because it’s the Catholic Church of my youth. It was focused on helping and being conscious of the fact of how lucky we are and the responsibility we had to help the less fortunate. That was the church that brought me up through eight years of Catholic school. My mother made sure I went to every Mass on Sunday.

No one should take away religion form any of us or suspect that because they literally read the Bible a certain way that they are closer to God than I am.

Rep. Sanford is executive pastor of the Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen.

Israel said that Sanford saw his act as “defending small-town pastors who don’t have the ability to fend for themselves.”

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She said she did not believe the fear was well-founded.

Well how many of us are going to Mesquite to try to get married by an evangelical person who literally thinks I’m going to burn in hell. I really don’t want to be around that person on my special day.

But you know, I don’t think his approach was right, but in the end  I agreed with his bill because it was about reaffirming what’s in the United States Constitution – freedom of religion.

Just the day before we reaffirmed Texans’ right to hunt and fish. Sometimes we do things on the floor that are not critical to the operating of the state of Texas. I recognized that, but I recognize by being in support of something duplicative, I was also helping to make a statement for my family and other families like mine.

Israel didn’t talk to Sanford about her intentions before speaking in support of his bill.

I didn’t want to talk to him before this. Not any animus. I was just getting my head around what’s my role and what’s my voice.

“No, I had no idea,” Sanford said on Thursday “I thought it would be a party-line vote plus a handful of Democratic friends. That was nice. It was nice to see. They all have pastors, they all have churches in their districts. The usually have relationships with those folks, those spiritual leaders in their community, and I think they value those relationships.”

He agreed Israel’s move sucked any venom out of the debate.

“I’m glad for that,” he said.

Israel also didn’t give her partner of 20 years – Celinda Garza – who was out-of-town visiting family – any heads-up before her speech.

No I didn’t. All of this was on the fly.

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Since then, she said:

Everybody wants to be invited to the wedding and my partner  – we’ve been together 20 years this July – she said, “Well I’ll marry you but only if we can get married on the floor of the House of Representatives.”Really? Really? It’s going to become a circus.”

Maybe, I said helpfully, that her partner of 20 years is just not ready for commitment and that this thing about wanting the wedding in the House chamber was just a clever stalling tactic.

Maybe that’s it, Israel said.

When you’re a gay person in Texas or just a gay person from a certain generation, we weren’t raised with that dream – “This is going to  be the dress I’m going to wear; these are going to be the people in my court.”

Glen Maxey wanted to be in the wedding that I pronounced  on on Thursday.

She told him:

Well maybe you could be Melinda’s maid of honor, but I don’t think you’ll be on my side.

Reflecting on her speech, she said:

It was a roll of the dice. It could have gone the wrong way. It could have turned into a fight and, luckily, my saying what I said avoided a harmful debate on the floor about a contentious issue that hopefully the Supreme Court is going to take care of  for all of us.

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Being a member of the House, Israel said, “is all about relationship building, and I think that ultimately, that we did not have a divisive argument about LGBT issues was a good thing.”

She recalled the debate last month when Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, succeeded in adding an amendment banning abortions of fetuses with genetic abnormalities after 20 weeks to a Department of State Health Services Sunset Bill.

The bill ended up getting pulled down.

“It was divisive, it was ugly, it was hyper-partisan. And that would have happened again if we had allowed a topic like gay marriage to divide us,” Israel said. “There are so many things we need to address. We don’t need to be divided about LGBT issues.”

The Big Daddy of the bills that could have come before the House was HB 4105, authored by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, which sought to bar public funding for, and bar state and local officials from participating in the licensing or recognizing of same-sex marriages in any way, no matter what the Supreme Court does.

Bell’s bill fell victim to Democratic maneuvering without reaching the floor.

From Kiah Collier and Chuck Lindell’s May 14 story in the Statesman:

Employing a wide range of delaying tactics, Texas House Democrats late Thursday killed a bill designed to keep same-sex couples from marrying.

Knowing House bills would die unless given a vote before midnight, Democrats missed few opportunities to minimize progress during a 15-hour floor session — drafting dozens of amendments, raising points of order and asking detailed, sometimes repetitive questions.

The tactics kept the House to a four-bills-an-hour pace through most of the day.

When midnight fell, the go-slow tactics claimed more than 200 bills that had been scheduled for a vote. The victims included the Democrats’ top target: House Bill 4105, which would bar government employees in Texas from issuing a marriage license to gay couples, even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns bans on same-sex marriage in a ruling expected this summer.

The bill’s author, Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, said he was disappointed with the outcome but added that he will begin looking to add HB 4105 as an amendment to another bill — an admittedly difficult feat.

“The whole problem with this process is, it’s designed to kill bills, and in this particular instance, that’s the outcome,” Bell said. “We missed an opportunity tonight, but the session moves on.”

But, if Bell blamed the process for his bill’s demise, Israel, asked if she was glad 4105 never made it to the floor, thanked a higher power:

Thank you Jesus. Good God. Thank you Baby Legislative Jesus.

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