By Andrea Zelinski
The Texas House passed a whittled down though still controversial bill Sunday night that would bar transgender students from using school bathrooms that best align with their gender identity.
Refusing a more wide-ranging ban the Senate favored, the House voted 91-50 to tack the bathroom-related amendment onto a separate piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2078, which would require school districts to share details of their emergency disaster plans with the state.
Rep. Chris Paddie, a Republican from Marshall, authored the amendment that he said would allow all students access to a single-stall bathroom or empty multi-stall facility, including those who are shy, have a colostomy bag or have other reasons they might want privacy. When Democrats pressed Paddie on how his amendment was relevant to a bill about school emergency preparations, such as for a gunman on campus or a tornado, Paddie said it concerned students' safety.
The bill now goes before the House a third time for a procedural vote as early as Monday and will then return to the Senate, which will vote either to accept the House's changes or request a conference committee to iron out differences.
The issue was part of a larger push by conservative Republican leaders in the Senate to restrict a person's bathroom access in public schools, government-owned buildings, and college campuses based on the sex listed on their birth certificate. The Senate approved legislation to that effect in March, but the House refused to take up Senate Bill 6, one of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's flagship bills this session.
Patrick, who threatened to force a special session over the issue, has contended it is a matter of privacy and safety for women, but transgender rights' advocates said a "bathroom bill" of any kind would target trans people for discrimination and harassment. It is already against state law to assault someone in a bathroom or elsewhere, and some cities, including Houston, have local ordinances that offer more protections in public bathrooms. The business community strongly opposed SB 6 as well, on the grounds that it would damage the Texas economy and cost jobs.
On Sunday, few Republicans defended Paddie's measure before the vote, but several Democrats tore into the amendment as a throwback to the state's history of racial discrimination, particularly Jim Crow-era laws that mandated separate bathrooms for black and white Texans.
"This is shameful. We all know what we're doing, and everyone watching knows, too, no matter what code words are being used," said Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat from El Paso who unsuccessfully tried to derail the bill by raising a procedural question about the amendment's germaneness to the underlying bill.
Democratic Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, the longest-serving African American and woman lawmaker in state history, held up a historic picture showing "white" and "colored" bathroom signs. She reminded her colleagues that former state Sen. Barbara Jordan, the civil rights icon and Houston native, had to use a separate bathroom at the Capitol when Jordan was a legislator.
"Bathrooms divided us then, and it divides us now," Thompson said. "We talk about how God created life. God created transgenders, too."
House Speaker Joe Straus, who called the Senate bill "manufactured and unnecessary," said Sunday's scaled back measure was enough to address the issue this session and would help sidestep the need for a special session.
"I believe this amendment will allow us to avoid the severely negative impact of Senate Bill 6. Members of the House wanted to act on this issue and my philosophy as Speaker has never been to force my will on the body," Straus, a San Antonio Republican, said in a statement. "Gov. Abbott has said he would demand action on this in a special session, and the House decided to dispose of the issue in this way."
After the vote, the Texas Association of School Boards came out in favor of the Paddie amendment.
"The House has approved a common-sense solution regarding the use of restrooms and other facilities in public schools," said Grover Campbell, TASB's associate executive director for governmental relations. "The language captures in law a solution many districts already use locally, seeking a balance between ensuring privacy and security for all students and respecting the dignity of all students."
He added that many school districts already make separate bathroom facilities available to transgender students when necessary.
"School districts need the flexibility to determine the accommodations that work in each individual case, as student demographics and school facilities will play a large part in how a campus meets it student's needs," Campbell continued in the statement.
However, LGBT advocates, some of whom watched the debate from the House gallery, said the amendment will further alienate transgender students from their peers.
"Transgender youth deserve the same dignity and respect as their peers, and this craven attempt to use children as a pawn for cheap political points is disturbing and unconscionable," said JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign's senior vice president for policy and political affairs.
The vote was a long time coming for some of the House's most socially conservative members, even as they said Paddie's proposal did not go far enough. For months, they tried to get broader legislation, similar to the Senate's version, on the House floor for a vote. Dozens of GOP members eventually coalesced around a bill by Rep. Ron Simmons of Carrollton that would have prohibited cities, counties and public school districts from enforcing non-discrimination ordinances when they involve multi-occupancy restrooms or locker rooms. It won praise from Abbott, who called it "thoughtful" in his first public comments on a bathroom-related proposal.
However, Simmons's bill never won committee approval before a key House bill-approval deadline passed, effectively killing the lawmakers' efforts on that front. That forced Republicans to find a still-viable bill to attach the bathroom language to as an amendment. By the weekend, the chamber's GOP majority settled on adding Paddie's initiative to SB 2076.
Bobby Cervantes contributed to this report.
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle