Religious liberty in Texas

by Gary Ledbetter, Guest Columnist |

DALLAS (Christian Examiner) -- I've jokingly told friends that Texas will be the Alamo -- a place for a last stand --for social conservatives in America.

I was joking, but I wasn't kidding. Conservatives in Texas can see Santa Anna's scouts on the horizon. Already we've lost skirmishes in Houston, San Antonio and Plano as the combination of cynical politicians and low voter turnout gave those significant cities ordinances to ensure privileged status to some based on their sexual behavior or self-determined gender(s).

Five pastors in Houston had sermons and correspondence with church members subpoenaed by the city administration because the pastors protested the ordinance.

And of course we've had the usual selection of cheerleaders being forbidden from putting Bible verses on banners, nativity scenes being banned from county courthouses and other "mundane" challenges to the religious practice of citizens.

These things have occurred even though Texas already has a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires a "compelling governmental interest" before "substantially burdening a person's free exercise of religion."

The "equal rights" ordinances being passed in Texas cities will substantially burden the religious liberty of those who do not celebrate the triumph of sexual license in our culture. I frankly believe they were intended to do so. And our RFRA will not protect us any more than it restrained the Houston city attorney from threatening pastors with legal action because of what they preached.

Christians may win future legal fights regarding their exercise of religion, but we will be challenged because the laws are in place to challenge our rights, and no one has declared equal rights laws unconstitutional. Those ordinances are contrary to the spirit of the constitution, but we need the letter of our rights spelled out.

We're not surprised then that the issue of religious liberty arose in this session of the Texas legislature. Senator Donna Campbell has introduced SJR 10 with the intent of adding what is essentially the language of RFRA to the Texas constitution.

"Secular Texas," an organization whose name says it all, sees a threat to the anti-religious aspects of the equal rights ordinances. They call Senator Campbell's bill "redundant" but also a threat to the city ordinances ... so maybe it's not redundant. Its inclusion in the state constitution may give religious liberty a status not currently respected by some local politicians.

Representative Scott Sanford of McKinney has introduced HB 3567 aimed at ensuring the rights of churches and clergy to decline participation in ceremonies that violate "sincerely held religious belief." This threat to the religious practice of churches and pastors is imaginable rather than imaginary.

Representative Sanford is perhaps helping Houston, Plano and San Antonio understand the limits of equal rights ordinances that will sprout unintended consequences like spring dandelions. It is also a statement that evangelical Christians do not really trust the good intentions of anti-religious people who talk a lot about toleration and freedom. It is easy to imagine that we are not to be the objects of toleration when push comes to shove, as it already has in Houston.

I've said this before, but it's pertinent here: There is a difference between freedom of worship and religious liberty. Any secularist will allow us the right to go into our buildings, shut the door and preach what he considers foolishness. Sure, they may want to ban us from some neighborhoods, forbid us from renting school property on the same basis as other community groups, tax our land and receipts, and maybe remove our children from such toxic nonsense, but for now we can affirm what we want in private.

However on Monday through Saturday, we'd better toe a rationalist line if we want to teach science in public schools, supervise people in public service, do business with the city of San Antonio or bake wedding cakes.

It's not an overreaction to introduce legislation in advance of harsh curtailments of religious liberty. It isn't redundant to make constitutional a right that the effort's critics say is not really being challenged anyway. It is being challenged, and we see a shift in culture moving our direction.

Was it premature for William Travis to fortify broken walls at the Alamo and range his big guns before Santa Anna was even in sight? Of course not. He knew the fight was coming, and he'd heard the nature of the war as it had already played out in other places. The last year in Texas has given biblical Christians a reason to brace themselves for an attack. We can argue about how imminent that attack may be, but it is delusional to deny that religious liberty is at least being threatened. These two bills in the Texas legislature deserve our support. We'll need them sooner or later.

Gary Ledbetter is director of communications and ministry relationships for the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention and editor-in-chief of the Southern Baptist Texan, the official newspaper of the SBTC, online at This article first appeared here and is used with permission.