A pair of bills in the state Legislature would allow Texans to install certain religious displays outside their home in neighborhoods where homeowners associations disallow them, but devil’s advocates warn that it could backfire.
Spearheading the effort in the Senate is Houston Republican Paul Bettencourt, whose bill was endorsed by Gov. Greg Abbott last week. State Rep. Mike Schofield, a Republican from Katy, is shepherding an identical companion bill through the House.
Although state law prevents HOAs from removing religious displays from front doors, the two bills would expand it to include a person’s yard.
Bettencourt says the bills would allow Texans to brandish their crosses and menorahs, but it also comes with a caveat: A display can’t be “patently offensive to a passerby for reasons other than its religious content.”
The two bills are the latest push by Republicans to defend against what they believe is an attack on religious liberty. Critics say the proposed legislation could be tricky to police and further stigmatize those who worship differently.
“There is always a potential that you open Pandora’s box by taking a bill that’s designed primarily to benefit members of established religions — Christianity, Christian religions and Judaism — and it gets hijacked for people who are nonreligious but who would try to use the religious claim,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
“They’re thinking about crosses and other Christian symbols, not upside-down [pentagrams] or a voodoo shrine,” he continued.
In a news release, Schofield said some HOAs have misinterpreted a state law, leading them to remove religious displays from front lawns and other areas. His constituents asked him to file the bill after they complained their HOA demanded they take down their crosses at Easter, he said.
The Houston Chronicle reported that Bettencourt heard from a homeowner whose HOA asked him to remove a small cross declaring “He has risen” from his lawn.
Bettencourt filed similar bills during the last two legislative sessions, with the 2019 effort losing steam following criticism, according to the Houston Chronicle. Texas Community Association Advocates, which represents HOAs, feared the bill could permit homeowners to display Wiccan and Satanic symbols.
Even so, Rice’s Jones said the two bills are “good low-hanging fruit for Republicans” because they allow those lawmakers to flaunt their conservative credentials. The move is more symbolic than anything else because there aren’t many Texans who feel their religious freedoms are being impinged upon by HOAs, he said.
Still, the bills’ murky language on what qualifies as offensive could keep some from accessing the same freedoms enjoyed by the majority. Such legislation would be an “uphill battle” for lawmakers to enforce, said Lucien Greaves, co-founder and spokesman for The Satanic Temple.
While Republicans may feel as though the “patently offensive” caveat has them covered, Greaves said it sounds like a “potential legal battle waiting to happen.”
“We are an IRS-recognized, tax-exempt religious church,” he said. “So, I don’t think they would have any real grounds to say that ‘Satanism need not apply.’”
Although many Christians may feel affronted by an inverted cross, Satanic symbols don’t offend Greaves or any of his church’s more than 300,000 members. Similar legislative efforts are materializing all over the country now as part of a broader theocratic movement, Greaves said.
Often, Christian organizations like the Congressional Prayer Caucus or Alliance Defending Freedom use politicians like “mindless pawns” to push pre-packaged legislation, Greaves said. Extreme "template" legislation like some heartbeat bills rile up Republicans, even though Greaves believes they’re unconstitutional and a waste of time.
The Satanic Temple is battling the state of Texas for allegedly subjecting one of its members to abortion regulations that violate her religious beliefs. Meanwhile, multiple anti-abortion bills have entered this year’s Legislature, including one that could impose the death penalty on women and physicians.
Some politicians are using their office for personal religious crusades, claiming persecution while simultaneously oppressing others, Greaves said.
“It’s amazing how we’re often accused of bullying — that we’re trying to silence religious expression — when we’re merely asking for the same access that’s being given to another viewpoint,” he said.
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