Friday, January 14, 2011

HB 665: Employment Non-Discrimination

HB 665 by By Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Villarreal filed the same legislation last session (81st HB 538).

Currently in the state of Texas it is perfectly legal to fire an employee for being LGBT. The fired employee has no right to sue and will probably not be eligible for unemployment compensation. HB 665 is needed to protect the basic civil rights of queer Texans, so expect a shrill reaction from the far right - no doubt claiming that churches will be forced to hire lesbian preachers if the bill passes.

Last session's version of this bill was referred to the House State Affairs Committee which was chaired by Burt Solomons. Solomons is one of the 'Gang of 37' - long time House members with perfect records of voting against the queer community. By simply sitting on the bill, and refusing to give it a hearing, Solomons was able to prevent this important piece of legislation from passing.

The State Affairs Committee has 15 members. In addition to Solomons the committee last session included another of the 'Gang of 37' - former Speaker Tom Craddick (who was ousted last session by current Speaker Joe Straus and spent most of last session pouting in his office - missing almost all of the State Affairs Committee meetings). The other 13 members of the committee, however, all had a record of voting in the best interest of the queer community at least once, even if it was only once.

For instance, during the 80th session an amendment was offered to a bill promoting student-led prayer in school. The amendment would have prevented the student-led prayer from being used as a platform for gay bashing. Fourteen of the fifteen members of this committee were serving in the legislature at that time. Seven of them supported the amendment, and that's with two of the most supportive members (Menendez and Lucio) absent.

It's hard to draw a direct connection from one vote to another, but clearly last sessions State Affairs Committee was not strictly a bastion of homophobia. Its chairman, however, was - and was able to use his position to kill a good bill.

This is why committee chairpersonships are so important. We'll likely know who the new chairperson of State Affairs will be next week. If Solomons remains chair HB 665 is dead. If the committee has a new chair HB 665 has a chance.

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