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Legislature must avoidnew distraction over bias

April 5, 2019

One clear benefit of this legislative session over the 2017 version is the lack of a so-called “bathroom bill,” a needless distraction that could bring economic boycotts to Texas. Regrettably, the state Senate is going down that same road with a similar bill, and the House should refuse to go along, just as it did in 2017 with the bathroom bill.

At issue this time is Senate Bill 17, which would ostensibly protect licensed professionals such as doctors and accountants from disciplinary action from state boards when they act on “sincerely held religious beliefs” in their places of business. Unfortunately, that means being allowed to discriminate against gay or transsexual people, or people of another religion, in ways that are otherwise prohibited by state and federal laws.

Keep in mind that just as with the infamous bathroom bill, this is not a problem in Texas that needs fixing. Yet some lawmakers still feel compelled to provide a solution anyway.

Texans have — and should have — broad freedom to associate with whoever they want and to like or dislike something. That’s a basic part of freedom. Yet that doesn’t mean that employers should be able to refuse to hire someone of another religion or serve LGBT people in a restaurant. Those individuals have rights that must be respected.

Years ago, black people couldn’t stay at certain hotels or enter certain stores. Texas and America should never go back to anything like that.

A coalition of major businesses like Amazon, Google and Apple have already come out against this bill, as have chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus. This is not the way corporate America operates these days, and that’s a good thing. Smart businesses don’t want to wall themselves off from any employees they need or customers they seek.

When Amazon was looking for a new headquarters location last year, a bill like this could have automatically disqualified major cities like Houston or Austin. Many organizations will not hold conventions in states that have discriminatory laws like this.

The new House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, is a conservative Republican, as was his predecessor Joe Straus, even though neither is far-right. Texas Republicans lost 12 House seats in November, trimming their margin to 83-67, mostly because of pushback against GOP hardliners.

If this bill comes to the House, it should die a quiet death so Texas can go on about its business. Our economy is doing well, but Texas still needs all the jobs and tax revenues we can create.