- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas’ attorney general, who faces an ethics investigation for advising government officials they could deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, backed Republican lawmakers Wednesday who want new religious objection measures and new scrutiny on city equal rights ordinances.

Although a top aide to Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton told a Senate panel the state would likely be sued if new laws explicitly let public officials deny same-sex marriage licenses, the state’s top prosecutor encouraged Republican leaders to “protect” people from what he called religious punishment.

“Religious liberty is the first freedom established in the Bill of Rights, and the moral bedrock upon which our nation has been built,” Paxton said in a statement released after the meeting.

Paxton, who wasn’t at the hearing, is the target of a complaint filed by more than 200 lawyers who say Paxton’s legal guidance after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last summer encouraged public officials to violate the Constitution. His office says there is no merit to the complaint, which was initially dismissed but reinstated this month by an appeals board appointed by the Texas Supreme Court.

Paxton also faces two counts of felony securities fraud for allegedly misleading wealthy investors before he became attorney general last year. He has pleaded not guilty and has asked an appeals court to dismiss the charges.

The Texas Legislature doesn’t meet again until 2017. But the hearing, which was requested by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who spent Wednesday campaigning in South Carolina for GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz, was a reminder of how front-and-center fights over gay rights and religious objections are likely to be next year.

Patrick, a tea party favorite in Texas, also asked Paxton for an opinion on whether judges could hold prayer services in their courtrooms.

Fights over religious objection laws are playing out in other states. In Tennessee on Wednesday, the state Senate passed a bill to give counselors and therapists the right to refuse treatment of patients whose cases violate their religious beliefs.

Business leaders and civil rights groups urged Texas Republicans not to pursue such hot-button measures, which they say will invite lawsuits and economic backlash. In Houston, conservative activists last summer succeeded in repealing a nondiscrimination ordinance that had been championed by the lesbian mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city.

In Indiana, a survey by the tourism group Visit Indy suggested that at least $60 million in revenues were lost after a dozen conventions pulled out at least partially because of the state’s religious objections law, which was eventually watered down.

“I am particularly concerned that we could give government actors an opt-out from enforcing the law based on religious conviction,” said Rebecca Robertson, attorney for the ACLU of Texas.

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Follow Paul J. Weber on Twitter: https://twitter.com/pauljweber

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