In his first term as North Dallas' state representative, Jason Villalba established himself as a serious, policy-minded lawmaker focused on finding common-sense solutions to important problems, like freeing Mavs fans from stupid and outdated liquor laws. Unapologetically conservative, to be sure, but in a reasonable, non-pandering way that has won respect, if not agreement, from a lot of those to his political left. Even when he carried a bill to arm school employees post-Sandy Hook, it seemed less like he was trolling liberals than addressing a matter of legitimate concern with a controversial but careful and measured piece of legislation.
Wednesday, he veered off course and proposed an amendment to the state constitution barring state agencies and local governments from "burden[ing] in any way a person 's free exercise of religion." Before he posted a link on Facebook to a hyperventilating Empower Texans article describing Plano's passage of an ordinance barring various forms of anti-gay discrimination. Villalba wrote:
We must stand athwart those who seek to eliminate every vestige of our religious heritage from the public square. Tomorrow, we fight back. I look forward to working with Matt Krause and the Liberty Institute to ensure that our Citizenry and our children will not face infringement on their religious freedoms.
In this case, of course, the freedom that's being protected is the ability to deny employment or refuse service at businesses to people based on their sexual orientation, as several of Villalba's constituents reminded him on Facebook. (One comment: "Always thought you were an ally. Obviously I was wrong.")
Villalba tells us we, and other people who are interpreting his bill as an attack on equal rights ordinances like Plano's, have it all wrong. It was a "clumsy Facebook post. We had the bill drafted already. We knew we were going to file sometime this week... It speaks to a similar issue (i.e. claims that religious freedom is being violated), so I posted a statement."
His bill, he notes, provides an exemption for restrictions that are "necessary to further a compelling government interest." Cities like Plano "can make a ... very strong argument" that banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity does exactly that.
What Villalba says he's actually seeking to address with his bill are controversies like the one that recently erupted in Cherokee County, where a nativity scene was put on display on the courthouse square, or the one earlier this year involving a kid outside Houston who was barred from reading his Bible in school. Cases in which the forces of political hyper-correctness try to snuff out even the tamest, most inoffensive public expressions of faith. Last session's "Merry Christmas bill" endowed public-school students with the right to greet each other with a traditional Christmas salutation. Villalba's expands that notion to the entire sphere.
Villalba makes a fair point. These controversies are frustratingly stupid. But justification for a legislative crusade, particularly that the guarantees being proposed are already included in the First Amendment? Villalba thinks so. "We're talking about the elimination of our religious heritage from the public square, and that makes me nervous." He doesn't want his daughters attending schools where the merest mention of religion is verboten, and a constitutional amendment will give the state sturdier legal grounds for ensuring that it's not.
So this isn't about enabling homophobes, OK? Never mind whatever Facebook postings Villalba might have made to the contrary.
This post has been updated and changed to include comments from Villalba.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.