AUSTIN, Texas — Efforts by Texas Republicans to defy the U.S. Supreme Court if gay marriage is legalized took a major setback Friday when time expired on a bill that would prohibit government employees from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Republicans had until midnight to pass the measure in the Texas House, which they overwhelmingly control. But the bill never even reached a vote as outnumbered Democrats used stall tactics to keep the bill at the back of the line.
"We're sending a message to Texas that this is worth fighting for. We're not in the majority. We don't control the ship. But we can help to steer it in the right direction," Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel said.
Nearly every House Republican sponsored the legislation. But Texas business groups, pointing to backlash over recent Indiana and Arkansas laws that gay rights activists consider discriminatory, have urged lawmakers to set similar measures aside.
Israel, one of two openly gay members of the Texas House, described it as a difficult day awaiting the fate of the measure. In February, a member of her staff married her lesbian partner in Austin after getting permission from a judge — the first gay couple in Texas to marry since a 2005 state constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Three weeks later, Republican state Rep. Cecil Bell filed his bill to prohibit state and local officials from giving marriage licenses to gay couples.
Bell said early Friday he wasn't giving up, but with only two weeks left before the Legislature adjourns, there is no easy path for another chance. More than 20 bills were still stacked in front of Bell's when time expired.
"There was a bunch of folks who don't think that state sovereignty is a high priority," Bell said.
Outnumbered Democrats bled the clock to midnight. They stalled with lengthy debates over noncontroversial issues and tied up the floor with a no-hope bill to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, knowing that Republicans would have sacrifice other legislation to move up the anti-gay marriage measure.
Despite emotions running high on both sides, the atmosphere in the Capitol matched the slow pace on the floor. The House gallery was largely empty most of the day, with neither opponents nor supporters making their presence felt.
Texas Republicans saw the bill as a way to put the state at the forefront of resistance if the Supreme Court upholds same-sex marriage. If signed by Abbott, it could lay the groundwork for Texas to potentially raise new legal battles over its ability to regulate marriage licenses.
But legal experts have cast doubt over how much success Texas would have mounting such a challenge.
The Alabama Supreme Court earlier this year already prohibited county officials in that state from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Lawmakers in South Carolina are also pushing a bill similar to what was filed in Texas.
With the Texas Legislature less than three weeks from adjourning, Republicans have accelerated legislation that gay rights activists consider hostile. This week began with the Senate giving approval for clergy members to refuse to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs.
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