AUSTIN (KXAN) — Houston attorney Neil Giles smiles at the very mention of his twins, both of whom attend the University of Texas at Austin and both of whom identify as non-binary.
“They’re both extremely smart,” Giles said with a chuckle. “They’re very different in some ways and very similar in some ways.”
KXAN met with Giles as he visited Austin in late August to celebrate the twins’ 21st birthdays, a stark contrast to his visit in February of this year when Giles found himself in front of state lawmakers, testifying in front of a Texas Senate committee against Senate Bill 559.
The legislation — which did not pass — would have expanded religious protection for attorneys in Texas who express their personal views on LGBTQ+ issues.
With similar proposals popping up in 2021 and 2019, Giles told KXAN he believes such measures could lead to state-sanctioned discrimination against Texans like his twins.
“They already face enough hate and oppression,” Giles said, pausing to collect himself.
The bill by East Texas Republican Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was labeled a “preemptive action” to keep the State Bar of Texas from adopting a rules change made by the American Bar Association.
Attorneys ‘under attack’
In 2016, the American Bar expanded its definition of attorney misconduct to include “discriminatory or harassing speech against a person based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”
The Texas Bar declined to provide a comment for this story.
“Lawyers are being attacked,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative, faith-based non-profit advocacy group Texas Values.
“(Lawyers) are being told unless they agree a certain way on certain political or sexuality issues, that they’re going to be punished,” he told KXAN. “So, actually, the Christian attorneys are the ones that are under attack.”
Saenz, an attorney himself, offered this example for the need for legislation like SB 559:
“I could be talking with members of my church and giving them my opinion on issues related to gender and sexuality. And I can be told that if I think it’s wrong for men to be in women’s sports or for men to be in women’s bathrooms, that I could lose my bar license because someone suggests that they don’t agree with that opinion, or for some reason that it violates a rule,” he said.
Jennifer Allmon, the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, told lawmakers she feels the State Bar should not get ahead of the legislature on matters of gender ideology since the state does not formally recognize gender identity.
“We’re concerned about those kinds of policies being adopted by bar associations around the country,” Allmon said. SB 559 “would be a kind of shield against that happening here in Texas.
“Unfortunately, some people in the last few years are starting to refer to the practice of our religious belief in standing up for what we believe as ‘discrimination,'” Allmon continued. “It is absolutely not discrimination.”
For Dallas-based attorney Steve Rudner, the debate is personal.
“My wife and I have three children, two of whom are members of the LGBTQ+ community,” he told KXAN.
Rudner said SB 559 was another instance of a solution in search of a problem given that the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Bill of Rights already afford religious protections to everyone, attorneys included.
“The legislature has developed a really fine skill in being discriminatory,” Rudner said. “You can’t hide the intent of this bill.”
He added proposals like this could mean unintended consequences for Texas attorneys like himself who do business in other states or large Texas-based firms with offices in cities across the country.
“If the state of Texas decided to allow lawyers to discriminate, there’s no question that would not be looked upon kindly by other states,” Rudner said.
“Religious beliefs are fine, I don’t fault people for that; they’re entitled to them,” Giles added. “Just keep them in your church, you know? Don’t use them to discriminate against people.”
During February’s committee hearing, Sen. Hughes said, “Senate Bill 559 relates to that most fundamental of American rights, those that we find in the First Amendment.” The senator added the legislation was intended to address “cancel culture” as well as “growing attacks” on freedom of speech, religious freedom, and expression of religious belief.
KXAN has reached out to Hughes’ office to see whether he plans to push a similar proposal in a future legislative session. We will update this story if we receive a response.
Creative Producer Eric Henrikson, Director of Investigation & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Tim Holcomb, Lead Editor Eric Lefenfeld, Photojournalist Frank Martinez, Photojournalist Emma Oertling, Digital Executive Producer Andrew Schnitker, Digital Special Projects Developer Robert Sims and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.