Republican lawmakers in Texas are pushing legislation — dubbed the “Save Chick-fil-A” bill — that they say is about protecting the religious beliefs and moral convictions of individuals and businesses. Critics, however, allege the measure is part of a nationwide effort to use religion as a weapon to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
“This is not an innocent effort,” Samantha Smoot, interim executive director of Equality Texas, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, told NBC News. “This is a part of a national initiative to pass legislation that is going to hurt the LGBTQ community.”
A bill in the state House of Representatives sought to prevent governmental entities “from taking any adverse action against any person based wholly or partly on the person’s membership in, affiliation with, or contribution, donation, or other support provided to a religious organization.”
Supporters claim the bill was a corrective measure after the San Antonio City Council in March blocked the national fast-food chain from opening a Chick-fil-A at the city’s airport over what it called the company's "legacy of anti-LGBT behavior." The company has donated millions over the years to groups that oppose same-sex marriage.
But after state Rep. Julie Johnson, a Democrat, managed to table the bill last Friday, the state Senate managed to revive it on Monday, led by Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican. The Senate passed the bill on Thursday with a 19 to 12 vote, and it will soon head back to the House.
Lawmakers voted to permit the Senate bill to be heard by the Senate Affairs Committee without giving advance notice to the public. Although dozens testified both in favor and against against the House bill when it was heard last month, the lack of notice meant the Senate bill was scheduled for a full hearing before LGBTQ advocates were given the opportunity to speak against it.
Johnson said it was “not a surprise” to see Texas Republicans attempt to force through the Senate version of the bill.
“We suspected as much on Friday after we were able to kill it in the House,” she told NBC News. “As an LGBTQ person, these bills are very, very personal for me and my family, and I'm going to do everything I can to stop them. We welcome the day when the Texas legislature can move beyond the hate and targeting of the LGBTQ community.”
Proponents of the “Save Chick-fil-A” bills have until May 27, when the Texas legislature wraps for the 2019 session, to pass them.
INSIDE PROJECT BLITZ’S ‘PLAYBOOK’
The bills appear to have been inspired by Project Blitz, a right-wing campaign that seeks to “protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer” in state legislatures.
Spearheaded by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, based in Chesapeake, Virginia, Project Blitz is a collaborative effort with the Christian nationalist group Wallbuilders and the conservative National Legal Foundation. Like the American Legislative Exchange Council, its mission is to influence public policy by devising “model bills” that lawmakers can pull from to craft legislation.
“This is designed to inject religion into public schools and our civic spaces,” independent campaign finance tracker Chris Tackett told NBC News, “but the broader push is to discriminate against the LGBTQ community with bills that focus on ‘sincerely held religious beliefs.’”
The first version of both the House and Senate bills — which were significantly altered after being introduced — appear to have been directly pulled from a 148-page document that Tackett refers to as “the playbook.” A side-by-side comparison of the bills provided by Equality Texas shows striking similarities to Project Blitz’s “Marriage Tolerance Act.”
While news coverage of the bills has largely focused on their connection to the Chick-fil-A debate, Dan Quinn, research director for the Texas Freedom Network, said their impact would be widespread if the legislation passed. His organization works to defend civil liberties in Texas and claims the measure is antithetical to its cause.
“If it's not amended, the real-world consequences are fairly broad,” Quinn told NBC News, adding that “people can be turned away from businesses, people can be fired, or people can be denied a home” because of the employer or landlord’s religious views.
According to Smoot of Equality Texas, the bills are built on a “foundation of fueling hostility toward LGBTQ equality.”
“It gives a platform to those who would try to inflame opposition to LGBTQ people,” she said. “It’s a kind of a dog whistle understood by anti-LGBTQ activists to be a vehicle for them to promote not real religious liberty but a twisted rhetoric that says that it's OK to discriminate against LGBTQ folks.”
‘NOT ABOUT A GREAT CHICKEN SANDWICH’
The “Save Chick-fil-A” bills are among 14 measures based on Project Blitz’s model legislation that have been put forward in the Texas Legislature this year, according to Tackett.
“You can go through and find places where there's been passages copied and pasted right out of the the playbook into these bills,” he claimed.
This tally includes the majority of “anti-LGBTQ religious exemption bills filed in Texas this year,” Smoot added.
While the majority of anti-LGBTQ bills pulled from Project Blitz have stalled in recent years, Smoot said at least one has managed to become law. In 2017, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill allowing adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples if placing a child in their home conflicts with the agency’s “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
NBC News reached out to the authors and co-sponsors of the Senate and House bills for comment on the bills’ connection to Project Blitz, but did not receive immediate responses.
Johnson, an out lesbian, said she believes the "Save Chick-fil-A" effort is unlikely to find enough allies to reach the governor’s desk. She added that conservatives have increasingly approached her to condemn the proposed legislation.
“The people that are promoting this legislation are very few,” she said of her fellow lawmakers in the Texas House, who will be forced to weigh the bill once more now that it passed the Senate. “The overwhelming majority of my colleagues do not favor discrimination against the LGBTQ community.”
While Hughes, the sponsor of the Senate bill, maintained during debate that it merely seeks to ensure that “religious beliefs are protected from discrimination,” Johnson said she hopes her colleagues realize the debate is not really about “religious freedom” or even Chick-fil-A. According to Johnson, the legislation is part of “a concerted effort to violate the constitutional protections that we’ve had for centuries with the separation of church and state.”
“We have to do a better job of messaging to other lawmakers what’s really at stake,” she said. “This is not about a great chicken sandwich. “