Bryan Hughes

Texas state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola

(The Center Square) – The Texas Senate passed several bills placing restrictions on abortions, with 18 Republican senators and one Democrat voting for them and 12 Democrats voting against. The measures had already advanced through the Senate Committee on State Affairs, chaired by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

SB 8, the Texas Heartbeat Act, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, would make it illegal to have an abortion once the baby’s heartbeat is detected. It includes an exception for a medical emergency but not for rape or incest.

“Ten other states have passed heartbeat bills,” Hughes, one of the bill’s sponsors, said. “We have to admit Texas is behind. This bill will protect the lives of our most precious Texans starting at the moment that little heart is beating.

“[The bill] requires the physician to determine whether there is a heartbeat, and if a heartbeat is detected, the physician cannot knowingly perform or induce an abortion and can be held civilly liable, unless there is a medical emergency,” Hughes said Monday.

Senators also approved SB 1173, which prevents sex-selective abortions. They also passed SB 394, which prohibits the use of chemical or “pill-induced” abortions after seven weeks pregnancy.

According to the latest state data, there were 53,000 abortions in Texas in 2017. Texas Right to Life says the passing of the bills is “historic,” and “Texas has taken unmatched historic action to defend human Life.”

Dallas Democrat Sen. Nathan Johnson said the bills encroach on women’s constitutional rights and are a “mockery.”

“I understand the passion that you have behind this bill, and it’s shared by many people,” Johnson told Hughes on the floor when the bills were debated. “With all due respect to that, I think those are all personal, philosophical, religious decisions. Not the scope of big state legislation, which I feel is going on here.”

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, who opposes abortion, told Johnson, “For you to use the word 'mockery,' it offends me ... If anything, to stand for abortion really makes a mockery of the sanctity of life.”

The next step is a final vote in the Senate, and for the House to pass these bills’ respective companion bills. If approved, they would go to the governor to be signed into law.

The state Senate also passed the Freedom to Worship Act. SB 26, filed by Sen. Angela Paxton, passed by a vote of 28-2. The proposed law would prevent state and local officials from shutting down religious organizations and worship services. A similar constitutional amendment, SJR 27, was proposed by Sen. Kelly Hancock. The resolution would add religious worship protections to the Texas Constitution.

Rep. Scott Sanford proposed HB 1239 in the House, which is still pending before the House State Affairs Committee, and Rep. Jeff Leach proposed a similar resolution in the House, HJR 72.

“A government agency or public official may not issue an order that closes or has the effect of closing places of worship in the state or in a geographic area of the state,” the Senate bill states.

“Last year, and still this year, some government officials are restricting churches from being open while allowing liquor stores, strip clubs, and casinos to continue to operate,” Texas Values, a nonprofit advocacy group that advances religious freedom issues, said in support of the bill.

“The problem I see is at any moment, we could just be shut down and not be able to worship. In fact, our church was actually closed and told if we open, they’d fine me $1,000 and I’d have 180 days in jail,” Pastor Cody Haynes said when advocating for the bill at the Capitol.

“We want to be in compliance with our governmental rules, but at the same time, they put such pressure on us that it closed,” Haynes added.

“Self-evident truths include … the freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs without interference from the government,” San Antonio area Pastor Charles Flowers posted on Facebook. “Men are endowed by their Creator, not by government, [and that includes] the right to worship and the right to stay open and help the community, especially in a time of tragedy.”

“In times of turmoil for many Americans, churches are absolutely essential to help the hurting. Churches are the one place people seek out when faced with spiritual, physical, and mental burdens,” Texas Values argues. “However, churches are restricted from helping when their doors are barred.”

The House State Affairs Committee heard public testimony on the senate’s companion bill, HB 1239, and has not yet voted on it.

Dallas councilman Lee Kleinman, opposed the bill. He argues, “We must carefully balance the freedom of faith-based organizations with the safety of the residents we serve. We respectfully defend the ability to limit occupancy. … If there is a disaster, we need to be able to enforce our health codes and building codes.”

If the bill passes the House committee, and the full chamber passes it, the bill would go to the governor to be signed into law.