“Religious refusal” legislation has made headlines in recent years as individuals and organizations call on their religious belief to refuse to serve, sell to, or work with another person or group of persons. The Texas Legislature alone has considered religious refusal legislation in the past three legislative sessions, with the number of proposed bills increasing each year: one bill in 2013, four bills and amendments in 2015, and 13 bills in 2017. Last year, one of those 13 bills passed.
It’s expected that in 2019, the state will see an even greater volume of religious refusal legislation that could create a “license to discriminate” against not just LGBTQ people, but a whole host of Texans, in areas ranging from employment to health care.
The Threat to Travel and Tourism
Needless to say, enacting discriminatory legislation could have devastating consequences on the state’s economy and could significantly impact thousands of jobs, as well as severely tarnish the Texas brand. According to a 2016 study from the Perryman Group commissioned by the Texas Travel Industry Association, spending associated with travel and tourism exceeds $128.9 billion in gross product and amounts to 1.4 million permanent jobs. Travel and tourism generate an estimated $7.0 billion in state tax revenue and an estimated $3.3 billion in local tax revenue across the state.
Evidence shows that such laws can cause major economic damage to cities and the tourism and travel industries that support them: North Carolina enacted its own bathroom bill, House Bill 2, in March 2016. Portions of the bill were repealed a year later, but in that single year, the state lost out on millions of dollars in direct spending as business leaders pulled out of development plans and as high-profile events and conventions were cancelled in protest.
Texas Welcomes All
Texas Welcomes All is working to fight these discriminatory bills to protect both the state’s citizens and economy. It was originally formed in January 2017 by VisitDallas, the city’s official convention and visitors bureau, when Senate Bill 6, the “Texas Privacy Act” –– also known as the “bathroom bill” –– was first introduced in the state. The legislation would have required a person to use a restroom, locker room, or similar facility based on the sex stated on their birth certificate and make it a crime for transgender people to use facilities for the sex with which they identify.
Leaders at VisitDallas immediately knew that the bathroom bill and other discriminatory legislation would hurt their business and those of other cities in Texas –– and that fighting it was the right thing to do to protect their citizens and visitors. At first, the organization stood alone in the fight. However, tourism, travel, and meetings leaders in other cities across the state began banding together in opposition to the bill after realizing that such a bill would devastate their industries, impact jobs, and damage the Texas brand.
The coalition is made up of eight convention and visitor bureaus from cities including Austin, Arlington, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, Irving, San Antonio, and the Texas Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus. During the time the bathroom bill was being considered, leaders from these organizations met with legislators and businesses across the state both individually and as a group, held press conferences at the capitol, and did everything necessary to make it known that Texas is open for business to everyone, no matter what a person’s race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity. Fortunately, the bill was defeated in August 2017, at least for the time being.
Gearing Up for 2019
Texas Welcomes All recently relaunched its communications as the November general election, filing of bills, and the beginning of the 86th Legislative Session in January 2019, approach. “Our vision is to form a strong coalition of partners to support legislation that is pro-business, pro-jobs, and pro-tourism, and to oppose bad, discriminatory legislation that will damage our state’s economy and tarnish our Texas brand,” said Phillip Jones, CEO of VisitDallas.
These events are months away, but the threat of discriminatory legislation has already reappeared. Earlier this summer, Texas Republicans gathered in San Antonio for the 2018 Texas Republican Convention to plan for the 2019 legislative session and the issues they’ll prioritize. The bathroom bill will again be included on the party’s platform for the upcoming legislative session, despite the fact that it was already defeated in last year’s legislative session.
And although the recent decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled in favor of a Christian baker in Colorado who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple doesn’t have direct implications for Texas legislation, there are concerns that this ruling could give Texas lawmakers who champion these religious refusal laws a leg up in 2019 legislation sessions.
The Texas Welcomes All initiative shows that convention and visitor bureaus need not be limited to only getting involved with local tourism issues. As Jones explained, “For a long time, we in the hospitality and tourism sector have worked hard to create jobs and economic impact for our communities. For the most part, we stayed in our lane and didn’t involve ourselves in state politics. However, those days are now gone. We must stay engaged. Nothing is more important than making sure that our collective voice is heard –– this is the new normal for tourism industry leaders.”