Religious Conservatives And Pro-Business Republicans Split Over Texas 'Bathroom Bill'

Feb 23, 2017
Originally published on February 23, 2017 9:50 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Trump administration, yesterday, revoked protections for transgender students brought in under President Obama. The move overturns guidelines that allowed transgender students to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The White House says this was done in part because there must be, quote, "due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy." And Texas is one state that is looking to do just that on this issue.

MARTIN: Texas Senate Bill 6 would compel transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, universities and other government buildings that conform to their, quote, "biological sex." The bill has split two powerful coalitions inside the Texas Republican Party, religious conservatives and business advocates. From Austin, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: In the age of President Donald Trump, there is no lacking for energy at the state capital in Austin these days. Outside, immigrant protesters gather on the steps...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Latinos, Latinos, Latinos, Latinos...

GOODWYN: ...While inside, lawmakers fill the halls, debating the bills that will shape the state's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LARRY GONZALES: Appropriations Subcommittee on Articles VI, VII and VIII will now come to order. The clerk will call the roll.

CAMERON COCKE: Chairman Gonzales.

GONZALES: Here.

COCKE: Vice Chair Walle.

GOODWYN: For the last 20 years, the Republican Party in Texas has moved steadily to the right. And when the legislative session opened last month, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick fired an ideological shot heard round the state.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DAN PATRICK: This legislation, the Texas Privacy Act, is unquestionably one of the things that matters. The people of Texas elected us to stand up for common sense, common decency and public safety.

GOODWYN: Patrick's press conference announcing the filing of Texas's very own bathroom bill was one the state's business groups and their advocates had been dreading.

CHRIS WALLACE: The real issue is one of perception.

GOODWYN: Chris Wallace is the president of the Texas Association of Business, which represents 4,300 businesses and corporations in Texas. Wallace is worried Texas would be branded as a state that embraces discrimination.

WALLACE: It's about sending a signal out to the entire country, to the entire world that we are not accepting; we are not diverse; we are not equipped to excel in the modern business world.

GOODWYN: The association commissioned an economic impact study done by St. Edward's University that estimated the bill's passage could cost Texas up to $8 billion and 100,000 jobs in economic development. That infuriated Lieutenant Governor Patrick, who quickly called a press conference to debunk the study.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PATRICK: Fear mongering is what that report is about. There is no evidence whatsoever that the passage of Senate Bill 6 will have any economic impact in Texas.

GOODWYN: Supporters of the bill include religious conservatives, of whom there are many in Texas. On the opposing side are the deep pockets of Texas business. Supporters say a law is necessary to prevent men from dressing up as women and then sexually assaulting girls in public bathrooms. Opponents assert the law is discriminatory, unenforceable and a waste of time. The business community worries they'll lose large amounts of money.

CASANDRA MATEJ: The Final Four has been into Dallas, then Houston, and then we're welcoming them back to San Antonio in 2018.

GOODWYN: Casandra Matej is the president of Visit San Antonio, the city's visitor and convention bureau. She's terrified the NCAA will pull its Final Four tournament next year, as it did its March Madness games this year scheduled in North Carolina.

MATEJ: And yes, they are watching what's going to happen pertaining to this bill. We just finalized our economic impact for the Final Four, and it came out to be $135 million. And so that's big business for San Antonio, for the state of Texas.

GOODWYN: Thirty-four million people visited San Antonio last year, and Matej doesn't want to contemplate what a boycott could do to her city. The lieutenant governor's devotion to the bathroom bill puts Republican senators in a tough spot, having to choose between Republican voters who love the bill and Republican contributors who mostly don't. Ross Ramsey is the executive editor at The Texas Tribune.

ROSS RAMSEY: This is a hard sell. The prevailing attitude is - is this worth the fight? Is the juice worth the squeeze here?

GOODWYN: But the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, Joe Straus, who, by the way, represents San Antonio has said the bathroom bill is not a high priority for him. That's music to the ears of many business leaders who hope their speaker will save them from their lieutenant governor.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "INGOTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.