USA First Look

Why Texas and Virginia 'bathroom bills' face an uphill climb

Emboldened conservative lawmakers' efforts to push new laws barring transgender people from using the restrooms of their choice are highlighting the political polarization around such issues.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst introduced Senate Bill 6, known as the Texas Privacy Act, which provides solutions to the federal mandate of transgender bathrooms, showers, and dressing rooms in all Texas schools. The two legislators answer questions from the press on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017, in the Senate Conference room at the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.
Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman/AP | Caption

Top Texas Republicans have opened up the latest front in a national battle over the right of transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, as emboldened conservative lawmakers mull similar moves across the country.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican who oversees the state Senate, led the unveiling of a bill called the Texas Privacy Act late on Thursday. The bill would require state residents to use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender assigned on their birth certificates, and stop local governments from passing ordinances to protect gay rights in public bathrooms and other “intimate settings.”

Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall (R) of Prince William also tabled a similar bill, the Physical Privacy Act, although it faces staunch resistance even from within his own party.

Texas’ proposed law, Senate Bill 6 (SB6), and the predictable conservative-liberal rift it exposed, in many ways mirrors North Carolina’s high-profile House Bill 2, which has roiled the Tar Heel State since it passed last year, most recently when deep mistrust between state and local governments led to a stalemate attempt to repeal the law. Conservatives argue such measures are issues of common sense and public safety, while liberals see such moves as discriminatory, even unconstitutional. Business leaders on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed concern that such measures will lead to boycotts that hurt business.

"It's the right thing to do," Texas Lieutenant Governor Patrick said while promoting the proposal at the Texas Capitol, the Associated Press reports. "The people of Texas elected us to stand up for common sense, common decency and public safety."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R) of Brenham, said it was a "thoughtful and unique" one, which will not create a "bathroom police" but would allow anyone to report things they see in public restrooms that make them uncomfortable. She said the bill was designed "not to start a controversy but to end one." 

Yet controversy didn't take long to emerge, after organizers closed the doors on 12 protesters who crashed the news conference while brandishing signs that read "flush SB6."

Civil liberties groups spoke out against the bill.

"It's unnecessary, discriminatory and inconsistent with the constitutional value of equal protection for all," said Rebecca L. Robertson, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal and policy director, in a statement reported by the AP. "Make no mistake – the invidious intent of SB6 is to deny transgender Texans the ability to participate in public life."

As in North Carolina, which saw major companies withdraw from the state along with mass boycotts of major sporting and cultural events, businesses worried the Texas law would hit businesses hard. 

Texas' leading business lobbying group said approving the measure and other popular anti-gay rights proposals could drain up to $8.5 billion from the economy and 100,000-plus jobs. Regardless, conservatives in the Republican-controlled legislature are expected to support the bathroom bill. However, the bill may be a challenge to pass, with Republican Speaker Joe Straus indicating it won’t be a priority. 

Despite the growing list of states where emboldened Republicans are putting forward similar bills, many face strong headwinds, pointing to the polarized stagnation on such issues. Virginia and Kentucky have introduced bills, while Washington, Alabama, Missouri, and South Dakota are pondering some version of bathroom laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Virginia, Marshall's bill faces moderate resistance from his own party as well as gay, lesbian, and transgender rights groups. Even if it passed, the state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe has said he woud veto it.

Governor McAuliffe has been clear that he will veto any bill that restricts the rights of Virginians based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said, according to The Washington Post.

“As we saw in North Carolina, these bills don’t just hamper civil rights — they kill jobs. The Governor is hopeful that Republicans in the General Assembly will drop these counterproductive bills and turn their focus toward building a stronger and more equal Virginia economy.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.