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'Save Chick-fil-A' bill advances in Texas Legislature

Proponents say the bill is about “religious freedom,” but critics say it would lead to LGBTQ discrimination in the state.

Two weeks after it was thought to be dead in the water, Texas’ so-called Save Chick-fil-A bill is inching closer to the governor’s desk. The “religious freedom” measure passed in the state Senate last week and advanced in the House of Representatives on Monday, largely along party lines.

“It shows that Republicans will stop at nothing,” Rep. Julie Johnson, a Democrat, told NBC News. “They're willing to suspend all the rules, have committee hearings without quorum, and ram it through without any regard for the rules and order of procedure.”

Monday’s vote was the second time the Texas House has taken up the issue. On May 7, Johnson killed House Bill 3172 — which seeks to prevent government entities from taking “adverse actions” against businesses or individuals due to their “religious beliefs” or “moral convictions" — through a parliamentary maneuver.

But days later, the Texas Senate revived the legislation by pushing through a softened companion bill, known as SB 1978. Proponents say the bill is necessary to protect businesses like Chick-fil-A, which was barred from opening a new location at San Antonio’s airport over its donations to groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

In a statement shared with NBC News, a spokesperson for Chick-fil-A stressed that the company was not involved with this bill "in any way."

"We are a restaurant company focused on food and hospitality for all, and we have no social or political stance," the spokesperson stated. "We are grateful for all our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. We welcome and embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

The Republican-sponsored SB 1978 passed the Texas Senate on Thursday following a 19-12 vote along party lines. The vote was held without prior notification, meaning the public had no chance to weigh in on the legislation before it was pushed through.

By Monday, the legislation that Johnson had worked to torpedo earlier this month was already being voted on by her colleagues. After two hours of deliberation in the Texas House, the Senate version of the bill passed by a vote of 79-62. Just one Republican, Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston, voted against the legislation.

Johnson, an out lesbian and founding member of the Texas House's LGBTQ Caucus, said she was “disappointed” that her fellow lawmakers “chose fear of party retaliation over what they know in their heart is morally right.”

When Johnson spoke to NBC News last week, she claimed that many House Republicans had approached her to say that they did not support the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill, which she called “a concerted effort to violate the constitutional protections that we’ve had for centuries with the separation of church and state.”

"This bill creates two classes of Texans."

Texas Rep. Jessica González

As NBC News previously reported, both the House and Senate versions of the legislation were inspired by Project Blitz, a right-wing effort to introduce “religious freedom” bills in legislatures across the country. Although each “Save Chick-fil-A” bill was amended before passage, the original drafts were borrowed from model legislation included in Project Blitz’s 148-page “playbook.” Project Blitz is a collaborative effort of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, the Christian nationalist group Wallbuilders and the conservative National Legal Foundation.

When NBC News reached out to the proponents of Texas’ “Save Chick-fil-A” bill about similarities between their proposed legislation and Project Blitz’s “Marriage Tolerance Act,” none responded.

During Monday’s debate, Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican from Fort Worth, maintained there’s “nothing discriminatory in the language” or the “intent” of the the legislation. He told colleagues that the government should not be able to punish individuals for “something you do in private, something you donate to, something you affiliate with and associate with.”

The Senate version of the bill is set for a third and final reading in the Texas House on Tuesday. But even if no Republican lawmakers flip during that hearing, the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill will not directly be headed to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The Texas House on Monday voted to remove a portion of the Senate bill that would have allowed Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate potential violators of the statute. The Senate must first approve those House changes before Abbott has a chance to weigh in.

“Our attorney general does not have an automatic right to start fishing around,” Johnson said of Paxton, who has been called upon by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to investigate the San Antonio City Council for anti-religious discrimination following its decision to deny Chick-fil-A from opening a restaurant in the city’s airport.

Johnson claimed it should “be up to local judges and prosecutors to determine if any violations of the statute” have taken place.

If the House and Senate cannot agree about the role Paxton should play in determining what constitutes an “adverse action” by government agencies, the Senate bill will be taken up by a conference committee to reconcile those differences.

But even if Abbott signs the legislation into law, Equality Texas predicted little would change in the state. In a press release, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group said it “creates virtually no change in Texas law and is wholly unnecessary because federal and state constitutions as well as Texas law already protect religious freedom, including the right to membership in or affiliation with a religious organization.”

However, Equality Texas Interim Executive Director Samantha Smoot said that even a symbolic gesture could be harmful to Texas’ LGBTQ community.

“Senate Bill 1978 has one aim only: to undermine LGBTQ equality and promote anti-LGBTQ messages,” Smoot claimed in the statement. “This bill is a ‘dog whistle’ to encourage discrimination against LGBTQ Texans, and advances messages that hurt the LGBTQ community.”

Others felt its impact could be more explicit. In a statement shared with NBC News, the Texas Democratic Party likened the Senate version of the legislation to “Bathroom Bill 2.0,” referring to a failed effort during the 2017 legislative session to pass a bill preventing transgender people from using restrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. The bill stalled during special session.

MarcoAntonio Orrantia, a spokesperson from the Texas Democratic Party, claimed the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill is another “license to discriminate.”

“Republicans know legalized discrimination will cost working families and small businesses billions of dollars,” Orrantia said. “That’s why they snuck the bill through committee without any public notice.

Rep. Jessica González, a Democrat from Dallas, who testified against the legislation on Monday as one of five members of the House’s first LGBTQ caucus, claimed the measure isn’t about protecting entities with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” She argued that it’s “about giving some Texans the ability to ‘break glass in case of emergency’ and dismiss anyone for any reason.”

“This bill creates two classes of Texans: those trying to get an education, make a living, support a family, and serve their community; and those with the power to deprive them of their dignity in their everyday lives,” González said in a statement.

While Johnson is concerned about the lack of clarity as to which types of activities will be protected by the bill, she claimed she remains hopeful about the future of equality in Texas. She noted that Monday’s debate marked the first time in the state’s history that five openly LGBTQ lawmakers testified on the House floor “out of personal experience in defense of our community.”

“Our feelings of worth, inclusion and equality mean something,” Johnson said. “We'll continue to build on that project.”