Hey Texas, What Century Is This?

By Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

What year is it again? By the looks of the public health education program – the curriculum we teach school-age children – it surely can’t be 2011. You’d think, in 2011, it would simply be unacceptable for the state to teach kids that, “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense.”

What century are we living in? Not the one where same-sex couples can get married in six states, and engage in civil unions and domestic partnerships in a host of others. No, this can’t be the century where the American public has generally agreed to remove the scarlet letter from anyone who is not straight and agrees to abstain until marriage. The one where we realized, through a spate of teen suicides, that teaching kids that being gay is wrong does irreversible damage. Surely, this is not the same year of Lady Gaga’s hit single Born This Way, yet another voice in a growing body of evidence that being gay is not about people embracing a “lifestyle” at all, but simply being who they are.

No, it can’t even be 2003. That’s when the U.S. Supreme Court – in Lawrence v. Texas – ruled against our law making “homosexual conduct” a crime. (Yes, yet another category where Texas can be proud to be last in this country, the last to undo our backwards, antiquated laws targeting gay people.) The Court found that, under the 14th Amendment, people have a right to engage in consensual sexual conduct in the privacy of their own homes without cops banging on their doors. The law was declared unconstitutional. But it is still on the books in Texas.

It’s despicable that the Legislature has yet to remove this anti-gay, unconstitutional law from the Penal Code. But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Two bills were recently introduced that would bring us back into the 21st century. HB 604, sponsored by Representative Farrar and HB 2156, by Representative Coleman, would undo the law criminalizing homosexual conduct and would take the homophobic statements out of our public health education program.

Please, call your Representative today and demand that they support these bills. It’s time for Texas to show that it respects our Constitution and our individual liberty. Take action today!

Help end the School-to-Prison-Pipeline!

By Frank Knaack
Policy and Advocacy Strategist

Last week the Legislature held hearings on five bills that would help put an end to Texas’ school-to-prison-pipeline.

  • SB 1116 would amend the Texas Education Code to remove “disruption of classes” and “disruption of transportation” as grounds for school law enforcement officers to issue Class C criminal misdemeanors to students. These offenses have funneled children into the criminal justice system for engaging in minor, non-violent behavior such as chewing gum in class or using profanity.
  • SB 1489 would ensure that children are no longer criminally charged for unexcused absences, and instead are referred for a CINS offense. Under current law, school districts have the discretion to charge students for unexcused absences under the Family Code (a non-criminal “Conduct Indicating a Need for Supervision,” or CINS offense) or under the Education Code (“Failure to Attend School” a Class C misdemeanor). Children charged with a CINS offense receive more appropriate services designed to better address the child’s needs and better assist the child in getting back on track toward academic success.
  • HB 348 would require training for school resource officers (SROs) to ensure that they are prepared to police children and adolescents. Currently, and despite the obvious differences between apprehending adults on the street and ensuring the safety of children in a school, SROs are not required to have specific training to police children in schools.
  • HB 2158 would ban Tasers in elementary and junior high schools. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that Tasers may be a cause of death for a number of adult individuals who died after being shocked with a Taser. In addition to being potentially unsafe, Tasers are also unnecessary to ensure safety in public schools. The Texas Youth Commission and the two largest school districts in Texas (Dallas and Houston) prohibit the use of Tasers by their SROs.
  • HB 622 would provide clear guidelines to school officials to help ensure that students who don’t deserve to be expelled are not expelled. Under current law, children can be expelled from Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEP) to Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEP) or to the street for “serious or persistent misbehavior”, an undefined offense. Current law results in punishments that disproportionately affect special-education and minority children and exacerbates Texas dropout crisis, further undermining Texas’ economic future.

Please … call or email your legislators and demand that they support these bills. Click here if you are not sure who represents you. Your voice can make the difference!

This Week at the Lege: Photo Voter ID

By Sara Haji
ACLU of Texas Public Education Associate

The right of every citizen to vote is something we take pretty seriously over here at the ACLU of Texas, but today’s deliberations over photo voter ID threatens to undermine that right. On Jan. 20, Gov. Perry added photo voter ID to the list of emergency items for the 82nd legislative session. A divisive and enduring idea, the proposal to require government-issued photo identification of all Texans at the ballot box effectively ended the 2009 legislative session, with Democrats stalling it for the last five days of session. Unfortunately, the fast-tracking of photo voter ID legislation prevents legislators from grappling with the real crisis: the $27 billion state budget. Today, the House and Senate will convene as a Committee of the Whole to consider S.B. 14 (PDF file), which in many ways is even more stringent than its predecessor from 2009 (S.B. 14, for instance, does not give voters the option of replacing one piece of photo ID with two pieces of non-photo ID). Though the bill looks poised to pass, the ACLU of Texas hopes that legislators will consider measures—such as allowing same-day voter registration during early voting—to reduce the disproportionately negative impact of the bill on certain groups of Texas voters.

Currently, Texans present voter registration cards to poll workers on Election Day. There’s concern that this system enables voting fraud, but no instances have been documented and deterrents to in-person voter-fraud already exist. In Texas, a comprehensive voter list provides an exact-match system more likely to reject eligible voters than allow fraudulent ones; moreover, not a single case of in-person voter fraud has ever been prosecuted in the state. Voter registration cards include addresses at which to find Texans who provide false information, and false applications are prosecutable by fines and imprisonment.

Perhaps most importantly, S.B. 14 acknowledges both that new, extensive voter education efforts will have to be made if photo voter ID passes, and that poll workers will need additional training to handle changed procedures. But with slashes to the state budget, there is no need for increased government expenditure on a policy change with unproven benefits. Moreover, the photo identification component relies heavily on the Department of Public Safety—but with dozens of DPS offices temporarily closed and more slated to be cut altogether, Texans will have even fewer opportunities to acquire necessary identification. In Indiana and Georgia, states that passed the most restrictive photo voter ID bills, ID opponents were unable to produce citizens whose right to vote would actually be impeded by the new law; in Texas, though, county seats—where government ID can easily be issued—are often too far from small towns and communities to make the trip viable. For citizens of Redford, an 88-percent Hispanic community whose county seat of Marfa is over 75 miles away, these photo voter ID restrictions present an unreasonable burden on a basic constitutional right.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) has said that he will offer amendments allowing eligible residents to register on early voting days or election day; proposing that all statewide election days are made public holidays; and allowing registered voters to mail in ballots during early voting. We at the ACLU of Texas hope that these and other amendments are considered to alleviate the proposed burden to voting.

Ready, Set, Lege: Your First Liberty Blog Lege Update for the 82nd Session

By Sara Haji
ACLU of Texas Public Education Associate

Welcome to the first ACLU of Texas update of the 82nd Legislative Session! You’ll be able to join us here as we navigate the political corridors of the most exciting state in the union. We’ll brief interesting bills on the docket, talk to some ACLU legislative volunteers, post relevant news coverage about the session, and take a look at what’s coming up. Now, more than ever, we want your feedback about the issues that affect you—so be sure to Tweet and Facebook us because our pages will solicit your opinions at least weekly.

For our first “This Week at the Lege” post, let’s take a look at the issue bedeviling the Texas Legislature during its first month: “sanctuary cities.” On Jan. 11, the first day of the session, Gov. Perry declared to lawmakers that abolishing sanctuary cities was an emergency priority. Making an issue an “emergency item,” a designation at Perry’s sole discretion, can highlight the governor’s political priorities—but with a $27 billion budget shortfall, the banning of so-called sanctuary cities and the inevitable cost of local immigration enforcement will do the state no financial favors.

The term “sanctuary city” has no legal meaning (when pressed by reporters, Gov. Perry stopped short of offering a definition), but tends to refer to a municipality that has an established policy preventing local law enforcement officials from cooperating with or enforcing federal immigration laws. The Texas Tribune ran an excellent piece observing that Texas state authorities abide by the same policy of not inquiring about immigration status unless the inquiry follows some criminal activity. The state of Texas, then, is no more a “sanctuary state” than is Houston a “sanctuary city,” but the term continues to be used by politicians looking to attack each other on the campaign trail.

Proposed abolition of sanctuary cities presumably aims to permit and encourage local police to detain or arrest undocumented immigrants even when they’re not suspected in a crime—often inquiring, that is, merely on the assumption (often because of race) that someone is undocumented. If this is what Gov. Perry meant, then he’ll draw serious opposition from many quarters, including from the ACLU of Texas. Like Arizona’s law, a ban on sanctuary cities would limit the efficacy of local law enforcement by discouraging undocumented or mixed-status households from cooperating with police as crime witnesses or sources of intelligence for fear of deportation. Police officials in Austin, Houston, El Paso and Dallas have already said that enforcing immigration laws can undermine public safety because such policies reduce public participation in reporting crimes.

Local immigration enforcement would also divert public resources from public safety efforts by requiring local law enforcement screen, transport and hold individuals suspected of immigration violations. Major cities in Texas already report officer shortages and local enforcement would only make matters worse. At a time when state services are being scrubbed, the financial burden of enforcing federal immigration policy is too great, especially in cities already in need of more local police.

In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to follow what the legislature chooses to do regarding sanctuary cities. Until then, tell us what you think and know about upcoming immigration legislation here or on our Facebook page—and check back in soon for another update.