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Texas Has Its Own Religious Freedom Law

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The nation's not so delicate dance between protecting religious liberty and preventing discrimination is back in the headlines. Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been met with protests, threatened boycotts and a firestorm of criticism. But 20 states already have similar laws on the books — including Texas. But, here's the difference:

The Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, or RFRA, prohibits government from infringing on religion. The law allows individuals to challenge laws that "substantially" burden their practice of religion. But, the law also includes provisions to ensure that the law can't be misused to disregard civil rights protections. Indiana's currently law is more broad and includes no such protections.

"Texas showed the nation how to carefully balance the need to protect religious liberties with the right of every individual to work hard and provide for their families," says Daniel Williams, legislative specialist with Equality Texas. "If Indiana had passed Texas' law, they wouldn't be experiencing this backlash."

But, other experts aren't so sure.

"Texas did their law 15 years ago when public opinion supported that," says Cal Jillson, a professor in the Political Science department at Southern Methodist University, "and it [public opinion] no longer does. If Texas passed its law today, it would experience that blowback."

In fact, Texas' law has gone largely unnoticed—until now.

State Rep. Matt Krauss (R- Ft. Worth) wants to strengthen the law and has proposed a religious freedom amendment to the Texas Constitution. Krauss insists that the measure is not intended to sanction discrimination.

"This is not a knee jerk reaction," said Krauss today by phone from Austin. "This is just good public policy. This law has served Texas well for over a decade and I believe it's important enough to elevate it from statutory to constitutional protection." Krauss also adds that he has not been deterred by the pushback occurring now in Indiana.

"It's entirely possible to stay stupid even when you see someone else get hit on the head," says Jillson, "to be talking about removing some barriers to discrimination against gays and lesbians in 2015 is simply not smart…even in Texas."

Jillson believes much of the fever to shore up religious freedom is being fueled by the push to court the conservative vote. But, he aptly points out that Texas bills itself as a business friendly state and business interests shy away from any law that even appears to promote discrimination.

"Fifteen years ago, it was 'low taxes, low property values'," says Jillson, referring to Texas' business friendly sales pitch. "Now, you've got big business saying 'we need to recruit the very best people—the smartest people we can find. We don't care what color, we don't care what religion, we don't care what sexuality.' And Texas is saying, 'well, you know, we want the big business; but, we want this social conservatism as well. The world is soon going to be saying: can't have that—what ya gonna do???"

But, at Christian Brothers Automotive in North Dallas, co-owner Beverly Benet insists that it is her faith that in fact prohibits discrimination, rather than excuses it.

"I would be heartbroken if anyone was treated any different just because of a belief, skin color, anything," insists Benet. "Whoever comes in the door, I'm going to treat them like my neighbor—or my own family."

However Dr. Robert Jeffress, Senior Pastor at Dallas' First Baptist Church, says the religious liberty laws are needed and expressed disappointment that Indiana lawmakers are now scrambling to revise their law.

"Clarification is a capitulation," insists Dr. Jeffress. "What if a Muslim owner of a T-shirt company was asked by a customer to make a T-shirt that defames the prophet Muhammad. Should he have the right to refuse service? Then Christians should have the right to refuse service based on their religious beliefs."

Beverly Benet, however, chooses to practice her faith through inclusion.

"It's about accepting everyone for who they are and loving on those people," says Benet, "that's God's law."

(©2015 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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