Top Republicans rally against gay marriage; Senate OKs changing 'key-man' grand juries



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AUSTIN, Texas — About 250 people gathered Monday afternoon at the Texas Capitol to rally in support of "Biblical marriage" — a union between a man and a woman — at an event headlined by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Moore, a staunch gay marriage opponent, instructed Alabama's state probate judges to refuse issuing marriage licenses to gay couples despite a federal ruling that Alabama's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

Texas has a similar ban that was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2005.

Moore encouraged lawmakers in attendance, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, to stand up to the federal government, adding that "state courts have equal authority."

After the rally, Moore told The Associated Press that he was in Austin to teach the law.

"I'm teaching that federal courts have no authority in this area," he said.

The crowd, many of whom carried signs stating "I support Biblical marriage," was mostly cordial. Several attendees got into arguments after the rally with gay marriage advocates.

Support was strong among attendees for the Preservation of Sovereignty and Marriage Act, a bill by Rep. Cecil Bell Jr., R-Magnolia. The proposal — scheduled for a hearing Wednesday — would prohibit state and local government employees from having to recognize or grant a marriage license "that violates a personal religious belief."

Patrick, a Republican, said that traditional marriage is worth fighting for and thanked attendees for "standing for traditional marriage in the state of Texas."

Paxton, also a Republican, said that Texans "could not have spoken more clearly on this issue."


CHANGE TO 'KEY-MAN' GRAND JURIES APPROVED IN SENATE

Texas will do away with a grand jury selection system that the U.S. Supreme Court has called "susceptible to abuse" under a bill passed through the Senate.

Derided as the "pick a pal" system, grand jury commissioners in Texas are able to repeatedly nominate people they know to review criminal cases instead of picking from a random pool. Momentum to scrap that process has grown under criticism that hundreds of shooting involving Houston police since 2004 have not resulted in a single indictment.

Houston Democrat John Whitmire said Monday that grand juries nationwide are being criticized for "what they do and don't do" — a reference to high-profile cases in Ferguson and New York. He said police officers don't need to be the foreman in grand jury investigations involving other police officers.

The House still needs to take up the proposal.


TEXAS CONFEDERATE BATTLE FLAG LICENSE PLATES CASE HEARD BY NATION'S HIGHEST COURT

In a dispute over a proposed Confederate battle flag license plate, the U.S. Supreme Court struggled Monday to balance worries about government censorship and concerns that offensive messages could, at worst, incite violence.

The justices heard arguments in a case over Texas' refusal to issue a license plate bearing the battle flag. Nine other states allow drivers to display plates with the flag, which remains both a potent image of heritage and a racially charged symbol of repression.

The state rarely rejects a specialty plate, but it did turn down a request by the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a license plate with its logo bearing the battle flag.

The justices seemed uncomfortable with arguments advanced by both sides — the state in defense of its actions, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans in their appeal for the symbol.

If the court finds the state must permit the battle flag on license plates, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked in a series of questions, would it be forced also to allow plates with a swastika, the word "jihad," and a call to make marijuana legal?

Yes, lawyer R. James George Jr., a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall 45 years ago, responded each time on behalf of the veterans group.

"That's okay? And 'Bong hits for Jesus?'" Ginsburg said, reaching back to an earlier case involving students' speech rights.

Again, George said yes, and remained firm even when Justice Elena Kagan added in "the most offensive racial epithet you can imagine."

Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller urged the court not to force Texas to recognize offensive speech. "Texas should not have to allow speech about al-Qaida or the Nazi party simply because it offers a license plate propagating the message 'Fight Terrorism,'" Keller said.

Texas commemorates the Confederacy in many ways. The battle flag is etched on a century-old Civil War monument on the grounds of the state Capitol.


ON DECK

The House heads back to work at 10 a.m. Tuesday and will consider a bill expanded what events can get support from the state's tax-fueled Major Events trust fund. Before that, though, the House Appropriations Committee meets at 8 a.m. to take up and likely approve the lower chamber's sweeping spending plan. The Senate, meanwhile, reconvenes at 11 a.m.


QUOTE OF THE DAY

"If you can get to know somebody, it's pretty hard to hate them" — Suzanne Bryant, before entering the Capitol on Monday to lobby lawmakers in support of gay marriage. Bryant and her partner, Sarah Goodfriend, were married last month in Austin, after a court ordered the issuance of a marriage license, citing Goodfriend's medical fragility due to cancer. Theirs was the first same-sex wedding in Texas since the statewide gay marriage ban was approved in 2005.

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