WEEK IN REVIEW
SENATE COMMITTEES CONSIDER PRIORITY BILLS
(AUSTIN) — Two key committees considered bills this week on Lt. Governor Dan Patrick's priority issue list, measures that deal with freedom of speech, freedom of religion and right to visitation. Monday, the Senate State Affairs Committee took up a bill that would prevent government at any level from imposing restrictions on religious activities or worship services. Though Governor Greg Abbott classified houses of worship as essential services early in the pandemic, government-imposed limits on religious gatherings in some other states encouraged some Texas lawmakers to ensure that never happens here. “It is certainly at the center of what it means to be an American and to be a Texan – regardless of any specific person’s faith – that we protect everyone’s freedom to assemble in places of worship, to engage in religious activities and to worship together,” said McKinney Senator Angela Paxton.
Also Monday, the committee considered a bill that committee chair and Mineola Senator Bryan Hughes said is necessary to protect the right to post political views on social media. He said that the fact that a handful of companies have come to dominate the social media sphere means that Internet discussion is analogous to a public square, and that First Amendment protections on political speech must apply. When companies temporarily or permanently suspend a person’s account based on posted political opinions, Hughes says it violates one’s freedom of speech. “The concern is about free expression of ideas, and having a debate, having an exchange,” he said. “We want to make sure that viewpoints aren’t discriminated against, whether they be conservative, liberal or in-between.”
His bill, SB 12, would allow a person who believes that they have been banned from a social media platform for political speech to seek an injunction in court to have their account reinstated on that platform. If they win, they could recover attorney's fees.
One issue the bill could face are court rulings that private companies have discretion over what content they host. Hughes said that he believes his bill complies with already existing federal law, that gives states the power to regulate websites as long as regulations remain consistent. “It just enforces a prohibition on viewpoint-based speech censorship,” he said.
Wednesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard a bill that would codify rules that guarantee the right of residents of long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, to designate a person who can visit them - even if general visitation has been suspended due to a pandemic. Given the extreme risk that COVID-19 poses to the elderly and medically fragile, visitations to care facilities were prohibited in March. Despite this, the Department of State Health Services said that only five of the state's 1,222 nursing homes avoided a COVID outbreak, resulting in 8,000 deaths. The stress of this situation was compounded by the isolation intended to protect residents. “I felt like we were saving the body, but killing the spirit," said Senator Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, who works as an emergency room physician.
In September, Abbott eased the rules by permitting the designation of an "essential caregiver", a person who would be allowed to visit residents as long as they clear a COVID test and follow all facility mitigation protocols. SB 12, by committee chair and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst, would put this provision into state law. Kolkhorst told her fellow members that her office was inundated with calls. "After the initial shock of COVID, the number one…communication was from someone whose loved one was a resident of a nursing home or assisted living and they couldn't see them. It was really difficult," she said. The bill was advanced to the full Senate on a unanimous vote.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 16, at 3 p.m.