Senate tentatively approves county clerk conscience-protection bill

By Richard Lee
For the Fort Bend Star

County clerks with a sincerely held religious objection to same-sex marriage would be able to delegate the issuance of marriage licenses to another person under a bill initially approved by the Senate on Tuesday.

Bill author and Granbury Senator Brian Birdwell says that his bill is necessary to protect the constitutional rights of clerks and judges.

“The First Amendment guarantees county clerks and every American the free exercise of religion, even when they are working for the government,” he said. “Under this bill, county clerks will be able to fully follow the law without being forced to compromise their religious liberty, the license is issued and is executed to the couple requiring the license and simultaneously the right of conscience to clerks and judges is protected.”

Birdwell’s bill, SB 522, would allow a county clerk to notify the commissioner’s court that they have a sincerely-held religious objection to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or for another reason that isn’t protected under law. The court could then designate another employee of the clerk’s office to issue marriage licenses or hire an outside agency to do so. The bill also permits judges to refuse to perform a marriage on the same grounds.

Some Senators raised issues about possible discrimination under the proposed law or instances where people falsely use the exemption to refuse to perform certain marriages.

“I have a concern… that we’ll be back here again next session with a new group of officials who maybe may not want to interact with certain people and that they may come back and say they have a sincerely-held religious belief,” said San Antonio Senator José Menéndez. “I’m concerned that this may open up a box of unintended consequences.”

The bill was amended by Houston Senator Sylvia Garcia to add language stating that there must be no unnecessary delay or undue burden in providing marriage licenses to any couple. The bill passed an initial vote but must still face a final vote, likely Wednesday, before it heads to the House.

Graduation requirements

In committee on Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee considered a proposal to make permanent a program that allows certain high school seniors to still graduate even if they don’t pass all their required standardized tests. Last session, Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger passed legislation creating an alternate pathway to graduation for students that meet all other graduation requirements but fail to pass one or two required STAAR end-of-course examinations.

Committees made up of a student’s parents, teachers and school administrators look at the entire academic career of the student, including factors like grades and extra-curricular activities. They can assign remedial work or an additional project in the subjects for which the student failed the standardized test. This committee can then recommend that the student graduate if they unanimously agree that he or she is ready to move on to college, the military or the workforce.

Seliger said that less than 3 percent of last year’s senior class, or about 12,000 students, graduated this way. About 70 percent of the students who used an independent graduation committee were approved for graduation, but Seliger said even more important is the 30 percent that weren’t.

“[It] shows that the educators involved in this and the parents are being discerning and pretty tough minded,” he said. “They aren’t doing this just to get the kid out of school unless he should get out of school.”

The bill passed two years ago was set to expire this fall, but Seliger’s SB 463 would make the program permanent.

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