The Texas Capitol.

AUSTIN — A bill that would give legal cover to counselors, attorneys and other state-licensed professionals who deny services based on their religious beliefs has received preliminary approval in the Texas Senate.

Senate Bill 17 by Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, was approved by a vote of 19-12 on Monday. One Republican, Kel Seliger, of Amarillo, voted against the bill and one Democrat, Eddie Lucio, of Brownsville, voted in favor. The bill needs to receive the approval of the majority of senators once more before it heads to the Texas House for further debate.

The bill would prohibit the state’s hundreds of occupational licensing boards from enacting rules or regulations that burden “an applicant’s or license holder’s free exercise of religion.”

It would also give anyone licensed by the state — including lawyers, social workers and therapists — the ability to fight to keep their license if it is threatened because of actions they took based on their faith.

Peace officers or those providing life-saving services would be exempted from the bill, and it would not protect the license holders from losing their job or from other negative repercussions based on their actions, like lawsuits. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has made the bill a priority.

LGBT rights groups and businesses have criticized Perry’s bill as a thinly veiled attempt to allow discrimination against groups not already protected in state or federal law, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. But Perry, weathering 90 minutes of questions from his Senate colleagues, said his bill was not intended to target any group, rather to protect Texans from losing their license, and therefore their livelihood, for exercising their beliefs.

“It’s not about the here and how,” Perry said during the final minutes of debate. “It’s about where we’re all going to spend our eternity.”

Perry also apologized for any offense he might have caused, but said after he debated “long and hard about whether I wanted to carry the bill,” he decided to do so because he believes religious people in Texas “can’t practice their faith openly in the public square.”

Three amendments were offered to Perry’s legislation. One, to exempt first responders, was easily passed.

A second amendment to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity failed by a vote of 13 to 18, with Seliger voting alongside the Democrats in favor. A third to require license holders to report every time they refuse services to someone also failed along party lines.

Seliger, whose vote broke with the Republican Party, questioned whether the bill was necessary. Physicians can already refuse to provide certain services like abortions without this bill, he said. Perry acknowledged that fact, but responded, “This provides a defense for the physician that says, ‘I will not provide that service based on my deeply held [religious belief] that currently is not explicit or enumerated in the law.”

Seliger then asked, “When do you tell the difference between ‘firmly held religious belief’ and ‘bias’?”

“We can have a philosophical debate. That’s way outside the scope of Senate Bill 17,” Perry answered. “There’s no real definition. It’s what you practice and what you believe.”

Perry has cited the American Bar Association’s model rule to prohibit discrimination against LGBT clients as a reason he filed the bill — which the State Bar of Texas has not adopted — and cited a number of cases during debate he said showed people of faith were being targeted in the workplace. Opponents have said the U.S. Constitution already protects Americans’ religious freedoms.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, likened the bill to earlier civil rights debates when politicians cited their religious beliefs to enact racist policies.

“Black men and white women couldn’t marry, and the basis of that was their religion, the subjective practice of their religion,” West said. “This is a subjective and not objective bill.”

Perry was also questioned about the opposition to the bill. When it was debated in committee, about 50 people spoke against the bill and just a handful supported it. But Perry chalked that up to his inaction, saying, “I didn’t rally my troops.” He said he did not read a letter penned by tourism groups, chambers of commerce and businesses like Amazon, Google and Facebook opposing his bill.

Several Republicans defended Perry’s bill. Sen. Kelly Hancock, who represents parts of Dallas and Tarrant counties, said while people have misused religious teachings to hurt others, they’ve also been used for righteous purposes.

“It’s important to remind us of where it was used properly,” said Hancock, R-North Richland Hills. “For the sake of tolerance, we’ve become very intolerant toward religion.”

And Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, issued a stern warning: “The freedom of religion, if we do not protect that, there are severe unintended consequences and we will see an unraveling of our other freedoms like we’ve never seen before.”

After the debate concluded, Perry briefly spoke with The Dallas Morning News.

“It’s one of those hard ones,” he said. “Nobody wins.”

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