Texas Republicans are pushing legislation to bar local officials from granting same-sex couples licenses to marry, launching a preemptive strike against a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling next month that could declare gay marriage legal.
Supporters of the measure, which is scheduled for a vote as soon as Tuesday in the Texas House, said it would send a powerful message to the court. Taking a cue from the anti-abortion movement, they said they also hoped to keep any judicially sanctioned right to same-sex marriage tied up in legal battles for years to come.
The measure, by Rep. Cecil Bell, a Republican from the outskirts of Houston, would prohibit state and local officials from using taxpayer dollars “to issue, enforce, or recognize a marriage license . . . for a union other than a union between one man and one woman.”
Bell said the bill “simply preserves state sovereignty over marriage.”
Gay rights advocates condemned it as mean-spirited and discriminatory.
“It’s shocking that Texas lawmakers would pursue a path that would set up this showdown between the Texas legislature and the courts,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
The move comes as the Supreme Court is poised to rule on whether there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage or if states have the authority to define marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, as the Texas Constitution does.
If the court finds a universal right to same-sex marriage, that provision of the Texas Constitution would be swept aside. But a legislative ban on the issuance of marriage licenses could stand, resulting in a potentially costly and drawn-out confrontation between the state government and the federal courts.
As of late Monday, more than half the members of the Texas House had signaled support for the measure, virtually ensuring its passage if it overcomes potential procedural hurdles and reaches the floor before a Thursday deadline. If it passes the House, the measure would move to the Texas Senate, where it is also likely to be favorably received.
The measure’s passage would represent a big victory for social conservatives, who have been freshly invigorated by the fight over same-sex marriage and are laying plans to use every tool at their disposal to thwart it.
Earlier this year, the Alabama Supreme Court ordered county officials not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, directly contradicting the ruling of a federal judge who struck down that state’s same-sex-marriage ban. Other states have enacted laws aimed at protecting religious objectors who do not want to participate in gay weddings.
“This is indicative of this clash that we’re seeing and will see at an increased level with the Supreme Court ruling coming,” said Mat Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a public-interest law firm that promotes conservative Christian stances.
Still, opponents of same-sex marriage face ever more difficult odds. Gay marriage is now legal in 37 states and the District, and support for it is rising. Nationally, a record 6 in 10 people said they supported same-sex marriage in a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last month.
Even in Texas, opposition to gay marriage is dwindling. Polling conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2014 shows that nearly half of Texans, 48 percent, support same-sex marriage, and 43 percent oppose it.
In a teleconference with reporters, critics of the Texas measure predicted that it would provoke a backlash like those that roiled Indiana and Arkansas this year, after those states attempted to enact religious protections that were viewed as anti-gay.
But gay rights advocates are worried about the bill. The state’s legislative session is scheduled to end in just three weeks, leaving little time to rally opposition. Meanwhile, they fear that a victory in Texas could prod other states to copy the approach.
That could lead to a standoff much like the conflict that arose in the 1950s over school desegregation, gay rights advocates said. That battle eventually ended in the capitulation of resistant Southern states — but only after years of litigation slowed the advance of civil rights.
“Texas is pioneering a new strategy to prevent equality for its LGBT residents, to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and even roll back gains that have been made in the state,” said Chuck Smith, president of Equality Texas, a gay rights group.
The measure “seeks to subvert any ruling this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court that would allow the freedom to marry for loving, committed lesbian and gay couples in Texas and around the country,” Smith said.
Supporters of the legislation said the proper analogy is not school desegregation but abortion rights. Abortion has been legal since 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark Texas case, Roe v. Wade. In recent years, however, conservative lawmakers have enacted a slew of bills that have reduced access to the procedure — for example, by requiring clinics to be built to expensive hospital-like standards or putting restrictions on the use of abortion-inducing drugs.
Many of these measures have been challenged in the courts, with mixed results, and some are likely to end up before the Supreme Court. But in Texas, they have already contributed to the closure of more than half of the roughly 40 clinics operating in the state just two years ago, according to the Texas ACLU.
“Texas, above all states, has . . . done everything we can to eliminate abortion,” even as it remains technically legal, said Steven Hotze, president of Conservative Republicans of Texas, a political action committee that pushed for the same-sex-marriage bill.
“By taking a stand on homosexual ‘mirage’ — and I call it ‘mirage’ because it’s counterfeit, it’s false, it’s a lie — it will send a loud signal and be a rallying cry across the country for those who do not want to redefine marriage.”
Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.