Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's office released a list of interim charges that led strong for conservatives, and once again invited attention to the different attitudes and priorities of different elements of the Texas Republican Party. At the very top of page one of the list of charges was the following to the State Affairs Committee, chaired by Joan Huffman (R-Houston):
"Religious liberty: Examine measures to affirm 1st Amendment religious liberty protection in Texas, along with the relationship between local ordinances and state and federal law. Make recommendations to ensure that the government does not force individuals, organizations or businesses to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs."
This isn't exactly shocking coming from the Lt. Governor, whose slogan "Christian First, Conservative second, Republican third" figured prominently in his campaign and later in his inauguration speech -- and can still be found on the web on the "Stand for Christ" page of his official campaign. It doesn't take a lot of labor parsing the politics of "God and Governing" to see the merging of religion and politics in Patrick's approach, and the focus on Christianity in his concerns about religious liberty.
The State Affairs Committee's action on the interim charges he has decreed can be expected to channel the attitudes of the conservative base that supported the Lt. Governor's political rise. While there are many dimensions in which the committee charge could look to affirm religious liberty, much of the discussion in Texas and the rest of the country has centered on religious objections to providing government services to same sex couples. Along these lines,in the June 2015 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll, we asked:
"Do you think businesses should be allowed to refuse services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons, or do you think that businesses should be required to provide services to gays and lesbians?"
The overall results were closely divided, at first blush a surprising result in Texas. But upon closer examination, there were unsurprisingly extreme partisan differences: Republicans were much more likely to allow businesses to refuse services to gays and lesbians for religious reasons than were Democrats. Looking more closely at different groups of Republicans, Tea Party Republicans were still more willing to accept religious justifications for refusing service.
|Should be allowed to refuse services||14%||36%||64%|
|Should be required to provide services||73%||46%||23%|
|Don't know/No opinion||13%||19%||13%|
|Should be allowed to refuse services||12%||54%||78%|
|Should be required to provide services||78%||33%||15%|
|Don't know/No opinion||9%||13%||7%|
The same poll found conservatives more likely to view Christians as suffering from discrimination than to view other social groups as subject to discrimination, as the chart below illustrates. Taken in conjunction with the more specific question about providing services to gays and lesbians, the contours of conservative perceptions of the interim charge, and just where religious liberty needs protection, are pretty clear.
|Group||"A lot" or "Some"||"Not very much" or "None at all"||Don't know|
|Gays and lesbians||54%||41%||5%|
After some bumps in the relationship between Patrick and his conservative base, including the disbanding of his Tea Party-led citizen advisory board amidst criticism of the legislature's failure to produce sufficiently conservative results during the summer, the pride-of-place given the charge to ensure that individuals and businesses will not be forced "to violate their sincerely held religious belief" is one sign (there have been others) that the Lt. Governor is shoring up relations among the conservative base. Interim hearings will provide a public forum for conservative activists frustrated with the legislature's failure to pass anti-gay marriage legislation in 2015, despite high profile events opposing gay marriage and national attention to conservative efforts in the state. The move is also likely to stoke continued conflict within the Republican coalition, pitting business leaders who opposed such efforts due to perceived negative effect on economic development, and the Republican rank and file, especially grassroots conservatives -- whose views, as the polling amply illustrates, differ greatly from their Republican business brethren.