- Associated Press - Monday, May 11, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Senate voted overwhelmingly on Monday to allow clergy members to refuse performing marriages that violate their religious beliefs, as top Republicans move to further shield the nation’s largest conservative state from a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing gay couples to wed.

The bill, approved 21-10, requires a final, largely procedural Senate vote before heading to the state House.

Democrats were quick to point out that existing constitutional guarantees separating church and state already allow houses of worship to set their own religious policies regarding marriage ceremonies and all other aspects of faith.

The measure raises some of the same issues as so-called “religious objections” proposals that sparked strong criticism nationally after being approved in Indiana and Arkansas this spring. Supporters say such measures protect religious freedoms from government intrusion, but advocacy groups argue they allow businesses to refuse service to or otherwise discriminate against gay people.

The proposal in Texas is less divisive than ones elsewhere, applying only to religious wedding ceremonies and largely restating existing law. Gay marriage has been banned in the state since voters approved a 2005 amendment to the Texas Constitution.

Still, the bill comes after the nation’s high court heard arguments about the constitutionality of gay marriage for couples nationwide, and a ruling allowing same-sex weddings by its justices would supersede the state constitutional prohibition.

“It is not my intention to discriminate against anyone with this bill,” Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said during Monday’s short Senate floor debate. “My intention is to protect pastors, ministers and clergy First Amendment rights.”

Supporters of what Estes is proposing haven’t been shy about openly decrying gay marriage, with some pastors even traveling to the state Capitol last week to declare that it violates natural law and offends God.

A series of religious objections bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature, but those had stalled. That was until tea party-backed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, allowed Estes to file his proposal weeks after the deadline and fast-tracked it through committee, setting up Monday’s preliminary approval vote in record time.

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SENATE APPROVES KEEPING EXECUTION DRUG SUPPLIERS SECRET

Rebuffing calls to lift the secrecy over death penalty drugs in Texas even when complications arise, the Senate on Monday endorsed concealing the identity of who supplies lethal injection drugs for the nation’s busiest death chamber.

A bill that would exempt execution drug makers from public disclosure easily won the approval a day before a 32-year-old Houston man was scheduled to become the seventh convicted killer executed in Texas this year.

If Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signs the measure by the end of the month, even death row inmates in Texas wouldn’t know where the state is getting the drugs used to execute them.

Democrats tried adding exceptions if drugs are found to be defective - raising constitutional protections of cruel and unusual punishment - but Republicans blocked their efforts.

“Whatever we do in terms of putting someone to death, regardless of the circumstances, we cannot do it in a way that violates the Eighth Amendment,” Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson said.

Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, a former prosecutor and state judge, said “many constitutional safeguards” are already in place for death row inmates.

An ongoing court challenge already prohibits Texas from disclosing where the state buys execution drugs. That ruling came after manufacturers reported being threatened by death penalty opponents.

But momentum is building in the Legislature to change the law and permanently keep the names of execution drug suppliers under wraps. The House is expected to also consider the measure the week.

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ABBOTT SIGNS LAW EASING GRADUATION STANDARDS FOR SOME CURRENT HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill that would allow Texas high school students to fail two high-stakes exams and still graduate.

Abbott said Monday that the state “must protect” students from what he called evolving testing standards. His signature offers an immediate path to graduation for 28,000 seniors who failed one or two of five high schools exams that are typically required for a diploma.

Critics of the bill included influential Texas business leaders. Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond has said it will reduce the value of a diploma.

The five end-of-course exams are Algebra I, biology, English I and II and U.S. history. Abbott says the new rules protect students from “undue penalization.”

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SENATES APPROVES ‘TIM TEBOW’ BILL FOR HOME SCHOOL STUDENTS

The Texas Senate has voted to allow home school students to participate in public school athletics and extracurricular activities statewide - advancing the so-called “Tim Tebow bill.”

Plano Republican Sen. Van Taylor’s proposal sanctions home school participation in University Interscholastic League events, which are currently only open to public school students.

Monday’s Senate approval sends the measure to the House. It’s similar to legislation that has advanced in other states.

Supporters point to Tebow, who played high school football in Florida while being home-schooled. He later won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Florida.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick oversees the Senate and has likened expanding UIL participation to the 1960s civil rights movement.

The Texas Home School Coalition estimates that 300,000-plus students statewide are being educated at home.

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ON DECK

After another very long day slogging through bills on the floor, the House is back at it Tuesday - this time with much-watched proposals meant to further block gay marriage statewide on its agenda. The Senate, which didn’t need as long a day to finish its work Monday, reconvenes at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“There’s nothing there anymore except the foundations” - Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van, describing damage done to parts of the downtown area of his hometown by tornados.


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