Saying Texas Republican leaders are threatening jobs and the economy, more than 200 small-business owners issued an open letter Tuesday urging legislators to abandon plans that include a state law targeting transgender bathrooms.
The letter described “a growing sense of dread” that Texas will follow the path set by North Carolina, where a backlash to a similar law enacted in March will cost that state’s economy several hundred million dollars in canceled sporting events, conventions, concerts and corporate investments.
“That’s why we oppose any Texas legislation — broad or narrow — that would legalize discrimination against any group,” the letter said. “That kind of legislation doesn’t just go against our values to be welcoming to everyone, it jeopardizes the businesses we’ve worked so hard to create, and it threatens the jobs and livelihoods of everyday Texans.”
Unveiled in San Antonio, home to the Final Four of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the letter was a direct response to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s calls for legislation that he has dubbed the Women’s Privacy Act.
“Transgender people have obviously been going into the ladies’ room for a long time, and there hasn’t been an issue that I know of,” Patrick said last week in a speech to the Dallas Regional Chamber.
“But if laws are passed by cities and counties — or school districts — to allow men to go into a bathroom because of the way they feel, we will not be able to stop sexual predators from taking advantage of that law, like sexual predators take advantage of the internet,” said Patrick, who presides over the Texas Senate.
Patrick and other leading Republicans also favor legislation that would provide legal protections for people and businesses refusing to serve gay couples or participate in same-sex marriages over religious objections.
The North Carolina law known as House Bill 2 overturned city ordinances that created anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, and it required people to use public restrooms that correspond with the gender listed on their birth certificates.
In response, the NCAA moved seven championship contests out of North Carolina, including first- and second-round games of the 2017 men’s basketball tournament, saying the law violated requirements that all NCAA events promote an inclusive atmosphere. The NBA also pulled February’s All Star Game, and the Atlantic Coast Conference withdrew its football championship and women’s basketball tournament, among other title events.
Deutsche Bank and PayPal also canceled expansion plans in response to HB 2.
In Texas, Tuesday’s open letter not only sets the stage for an animated battle when the 2017 legislative session convenes in January, it underscored deepening divisions between social conservatives and many in the business community — a typically reliable GOP ally — on issues that include gay marriage and allowing transgender Texans to use bathrooms that conform to their gender identity, not the gender on their birth certificates.
The legislative priorities for the Texas Association of Business, adopted last month by its board of directors, call for opposition to religious freedom bills that are “discriminatory” and would hurt the economy. The powerful business lobbying group also opposed similar bills, which didn’t pass, during the 2015 legislative session.
Looking ahead to 2017, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, has said he will again seek to amend the Texas Constitution to allow business owners to refuse services to people whose lifestyles clash with their religious beliefs.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has proposed taking incremental steps, such as exempting religious groups from nondiscrimination laws on hiring and housing, protecting small businesses from having to provide goods or services for same-sex couples, and not forcing government employees to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed gay marriage. Paxton’s proposals were favorably received by Republicans at a state Senate committee hearing in February.
Many business owners who signed Tuesday’s open letter — which was sponsored by Equality Texas, a gay- and transgender-rights group — said they rely on tourism or the ability to serve expanding corporations.
“Texas has always been a place of fierce independence and a great big pioneering spirit,” said David Wyatt with Wyatt Brand, a business-support company in Austin that endorsed the letter. “Companies, voters and political donors won’t stand for legislators dictating government overreach into individual liberties.”
Other Austin businesses listed on the letter included GSD&M advertising, Home Slice Pizza, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Bunkhouse, which manages Hotel San José, Austin Motel, Hotel Saint Cecilia and other properties.
Patrick, backed by leading conservative organizations, has made the transgender bathroom issue a priority, and he led a campaign last summer to oppose a Fort Worth school district policy allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.
In addition, Paxton has led a 13-state coalition that challenged an Obama administration directive requiring all public schools to allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that conform with their gender identity. A federal judge in Texas blocked enforcement of the rule, and the U.S. Justice Department has appealed.
Most recently, the conservative organization Texas Values had led opposition to a Dripping Springs school district’s decision to let a transgender third-grader use the girls bathroom. Opponents say such policies are dangerous, while supporters say they are meant to protect a vulnerable population.
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