AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Republicans have been pushing an aggressive agenda despite promised court challenges, including legislation that would let police ask drivers whether they're in the U.S. legally, restrict what school bathrooms transgender students can use, ban most second-trimester abortions and let adoption agencies reject gay couples over religious objections.
The lawsuits have already begun: El Paso County on Monday asked a federal court to block a "sanctuary cities" crackdown signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that opponents say invites racial profiling by police and will push immigrant crime victims further into the shadows.
Abortion rights groups, civil rights lawyers and LGBT organizations have also renewed pledges to take the state to court this summer following a whirlwind weekend in which the Republican-controlled Legislature pushed new anti-abortion bills, a religious objections bill and a so-called "bathroom bill" closer to Abbott's desk before lawmakers adjourn May 29.
"I would think it's unprecedented that this many actions by the Legislature will be contested in court," said state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic leader in the Texas House of Representatives.
Texas is used to getting dragged into federal courts, which have weakened or dismantled some of the state's most prominent Republican efforts in recent years. Federal judges this spring found intentional discrimination in the state's voter ID law and Republican-drawn voting maps, and last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a sweeping Texas anti-abortion law that prompted more than half of the state's abortion clinics to close.
Steamrolled by a dominant GOP majority in the Texas Legislature, Democrats have turned to federal courts as a refuge, but this summer could be particularly busy. Defending the laws is likely to cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in taxpayer money, depending on how long the cases last.
The likely challenges include a bill passed early Monday in the Senate that allows publicly funded foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents because of religious objections. If passed, the law would be the nation's second to let state-funded adoption agencies reject families on religious grounds, following South Dakota, where the legislation passed in March has made it too soon to measure its practical effects.
The Texas House on Monday also cleared a "bathroom bill" reminiscent of one that caused a national uproar last year in North Carolina, although less far-reaching. Under the Texas measure, transgender students at public and charter schools would not be permitted to use the bathroom of their choice, but could be directed to separate, single-occupancy restrooms. Lambda Legal, a national gay rights group, signaled a legal challenge after Republican members overwhelmingly sent the bill to the state Senate.
Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the rightward drift of the Legislature has left lawmakers OK with leaving some laws up the courts.
"None of these reps are going to lose their primary if the laws are blocked in the court," Jones said. "They could lose their primary if they go against the bathroom bill, or against the abortion bill, or against the sanctuary city bill."
Since Abbott signed the sanctuary city bill, the American Civil Liberties Union and big Texas cities have pledged lawsuits, while the state in turn has pre-emptively asked a federal court to declare the law constitutional. The law gives police the right to ask residency questions during any "lawful detention or arrest" and threatens police chiefs and sheriffs with jail time if they don't comply with federal immigration agents.
On Monday, Abbott continued his defense of the bill, releasing a list of nearly two dozen police chiefs and law enforcement officials along the Texas-Mexico border signing onto a weekend editorial from Abbott in support of the law.
"Whether driven by misunderstanding or by purposeful fearmongering, those who are inflaming unrest place all who live in Texas at greater risk," Abbott wrote.
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