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Flooding recovery & Texas Fair Defense Act event

Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying times as our community recovers from the tragic floods that cost eight people their lives and displaced thousands of others. President Obama was quick to issue a disaster declaration for Harris County. Because of his prompt declaration, Harris County residents are eligible to apply for federal assistance to supplement local recovery efforts. Federal assistance can be used on home repairs, temporary housing, replacement of personal property, medication, funeral expenses, small loans and transportation, among other things.

Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four newly opened flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

The four recovery centers will be open 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

As of Monday, FEMA had already approved $13 million in assistance to flood victims in four Texas counties, including Harris.  Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers or at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.  If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.


Fighting for families

This past weekend, I joined the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) to fight for displaced residents in the Greenspoint area whose apartments were recently flooded. Despite the fact that their apartments are completely unlivable and full of mold, apartment managers are demanding full rent. TOP helped to organize residents to demand that managers allow residents to forgo rental payments until FEMA and insurance payments can be secured.

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As a Houston Chronicle article explains:

State. Sen. Rodney Ellis joined tenants and advocates outside The Woods of Greenbriar, a complex of more than 170 units in the 900 block of Greens Road, to encourage landlords to waive May rent. […]

Ellis, who is running for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner, implored property owners to go further than a discount.

“It is totally reasonable to ask the landlords to give one month free rent, because there is nothing that they could do with the unit I just left and most of these units while they’re being repaired,” the state senator said. “If these great folks were not in these units, they wouldn’t make a dime. The units would be empty.”

After the managers felt the pressure, they offered tenants a 25 percent rent reduction on May rent, the first such offer from management. That’s a good first start – certainly better than the threats of penalties residents had previously received from landlords.

But let’s be clear: charging residents in crisis to stay in unlivable, mold-filled apartments is cruel. As residents attempt to secure different housing, landlords should recognize the severity of this situation, expedite repairs, and waive rent and penalties for families in unlivable apartments.


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15th Anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act

I want to invite you to join me at this Friday’s 15th anniversary celebration of the Texas Fair Defense Act at Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals (301 Fannin St.). The event runs from 12:30 to 3:30 pm, and it is free and open to the public. Plus, attorneys can receive 2.25 MCLE hours from the State Bar for attending.

Click here to RSVP and get more information.

Fifteen years ago, I passed the Texas Fair Defense Act to improve our state’s criminal justice system and ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense. While the Act has helped to move Texas’ justice system forward, quality of justice is still too contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. We have long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve, which is why this symposium is so important.

After all, the promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice. Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation when they are accused of a crime.

From 12:30 to 3:30 pm, the event will include two panels and a keynote address from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Director of Access to Justice, Lisa Foster. Also in attendance will be Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, as well as numerous legal leaders throughout the state.

Following the symposium, there will be a reception at Hearsay Gastro Lounge (218 Travis) from 3:45 to 5 pm.

I hope to see you there.

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with: , , ,

Legal leaders to gather in Houston to celebrate 15th anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act

(Houston, TX) // On Friday, May 6, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Senator Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller will gather in Houston at the Fourteenth Court of Appeals to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act.

The Fair Defense Act, passed in 2001 by Senator Ellis and Senator Hinojosa as Senate Bill 7, is landmark legislation that overhauled the state’s criminal justice system to improve the quality of justice that all Texans receive when they are accused of a crime. Senator Ellis authored Senate Bill 7, which was sponsored by Senator Hinojosa – then a member of the Texas House of Representatives.

Also speaking at the event are Lisa Foster, Director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice division, and leading attorneys from across the state. This free event is open to the public.

 “The promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice,” said Senator Ellis. “Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation when they are accused of a crime.”

Senator Ellis continued: “Fifteen years ago, I passed the Texas Fair Defense Act to improve our state’s criminal justice system and ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense. While the Act has helped to move Texas’ justice system forward, quality of justice is still too contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. We have long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve, which is why this symposium is so important.”

When:       Friday, May 6, 2016 from 12:30 pm to 5:00 pm

Where:     Fourteenth Court of Appeals, 301 Fannin Street (North Courtroom), Houston, Texas 77002

Info:          For more information and to register, click here.

Agenda:

12:30 pm        Welcome and Opening Remarks

  • Senator Rodney Ellis and Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Sponsors of the Fair Defense Act of 2001

12:45 pm        Commencement and Presentation of Awards

  • Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, Chair and Jim Bethke, Executive Director Texas Indigent Defense Commission

1:15 pm          Keynote Address

  • Lisa Foster, Director, Access to Justice, United States Department of Justice

1:30 pm          A look back over the 15 years: Programs that are making a difference

  • Moderator: Jim Bethke / Texas Indigent Defense Commission
  • Jack Stoffregen / Regional Public Defender Office for Capital Cases
  • Alex Bunin / Harris County Public Defender Office
  • Judge Elisabeth Earle / Capital Area Private Defender Service, Travis County
  • Donnie Yandell / Texas Tech Law/Caprock Public Defender
  • Jordan Pollock / Immigration attorney, Dallas Public Defender Office

2:30 pm          A look forward to challenges that lie ahead

  • Moderator: Andrea Marsh / University of Texas School of Law and Texas Fair Defense Project
  • Michael Young / Chief Public Defender Bexar County
  • Cathy Burnett / State Bar of Texas Legal Services to Poor in Criminal Matters Committee
  • Andrea Keilen / General Counsel, Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
  • Jim Allison / General Counsel, County Judges and Commissioners Association

3:30 pm          Closing Remarks / Adjourn

  • Senator Rodney Ellis and Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Federal assistance now available for flood recovery

Yesterday, President Obama declared a major disaster in Harris County andordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas impacted by last week’s tragic flooding. The President also issued a disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, and Parker counties.

I want to thank our President for his quick action to help our community in such a time of need. Working together with our local, state, and federal partners, Houston will come back stronger than ever.

Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the designated counties can begin applying for assistance today by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.

According to FEMA, the following is a summary of key federal disaster aid programs that can be made available as needed and warranted under President Obama’s disaster declaration issued for the State of Texas:
  • Rental payments for temporary housing for those whose homes are unlivable.  Initial assistance may be provided for up to three months for homeowners and at least one month for renters.  Assistance may be extended if requested after the initial period based on a review of individual applicant requirements. (Source: FEMA funded and administered.)
  • Grants for home repairs and replacement of essential household items not covered by insurance to make damaged dwellings safe, sanitary and functional.  (Source: FEMA funded and administered.)
  • Grants to replace personal property and help meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other federal, state and charitable aid programs.   (Source: FEMA funded at 75 percent of total eligible costs; 25 percent funded by the state.)
  • Unemployment payments up to 26 weeks for workers who temporarily lost jobs because of the disaster and who do not qualify for state benefits, such as self-employed individuals.  (Source: FEMA funded; state administered.)
  • Low-interest loans to cover residential losses not fully compensated by insurance.  Loans available up to $200,000 for primary residence; $40,000 for personal property, including renter losses.  Loans available up to $2 million for business property losses not fully compensated by insurance.  (Source: U.S. Small Business Administration.)
  • Loans up to $2 million for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private, non-profit organizations of all sizes that have suffered disaster-related cash flow problems and need funds for working capital to recover from the disaster’s adverse economic impact.  This loan in combination with a property loss loan cannot exceed a total of $2 million. (Source: U.S. Small Business Administration.)
  • Loans up to $500,000 for farmers, ranchers and aquaculture operators to cover production and property losses, excluding primary residence.  (Source: Farm Service Agency, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.)
  • Other relief programs: Crisis counseling for those traumatized by the disaster; income tax assistance for filing casualty losses; advisory assistance for legal, veterans’ benefits and social security matters.

Again, to find out more and apply for aid, visit www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers are operating from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week.

If you have any questions, please call my Houston office at 713-236-0306.

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Resources for Houston flood recovery

Yesterday, our community was slammed by historic rains that caused immense flooding throughout the area. Houston remains under a flash flood watch until 7 am on Wednesday due to the potential for additional rain. Many locations are still experiencing extremely high water that may not subside for a few days.

As our community continues to deal with flooding, please keep in mind these important tips to stay safe:
  1. Follow evacuation orders and do not attempt to return until officials say it is safe to do so.
  2. Head for higher ground and stay there.
  3. Stay away from floodwaters. If you come upon a flowing stream where water is above your ankles, stop, turn around and go another way.
  4. Turn around, don’t drown. If driving, turn around and go another way. If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground. Most cars can be swept away by less than two feet of moving water.
  5. Keep children out of the water.
  6. Be especially cautious at night when it’s harder to see flood danger.
Area services
These services will help you as you begin to recover from the flood’s impact.
  1. Report flooding: the City of Houston Office of Emergency Management is asking any residents who experienced flooding inside their home or business to report it to the Houston 311 Help & Information Line by calling 311 or submitting the report online here.
  2. Legal assistance: the State Bar of Texas offers a legal hotline to help connect people with legal aid providers following disasters: 1-800-504-7030. Additional resources are available at texasbar.com/disasters and texaslawhelp.org.
  3. Abandoned car: if your car was towed during the flood, call 713-308-8580 or visit findmytowedcar.com to determine where it is currently located.
  4. No power or downed power lines: please report a power outage or downed power lines to CenterPoint Energy at 713-207-2222.
  5. Food: if you need food or water, please contact the Houston Food Bank at 832-369-9390.
  6. Free storage: U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage and U-Box container usage to flood victims. Call one of the Houston offices for more details: U-Haul of East Houston 281-377-3380; U-Haul of West Houston 281-495-6683; U-Haul of Gulf Coast Texas 713-750-7701; U-Haul Storage Centers of Houston 281-531-4022
Shelters
There are designated American Red Cross shelters available across the city if you or your family have experienced flood damage and need a place to stay:
  1. Chinese Community Center: 9800 Town Park Dr. 77036
  2. Willow Meadows Baptist Church: 4300 W. Belfort. 77035
  3. Johnston Middle School: 10410 Manhattan Dr. 77096
  4. Jersey Village Baptist Church: 16518 Jersey Dr. 77040
  5. MO Campbell Education Center: 1865 Aldine Bender Rd. 77032
  6. South County Community Center: 2235 Lake Robbins Rd. 77380
  7. Acres Home Community Development Corp: 6719 W. Montgomery Rd. 77041
These shelters are open 24 hours, providing a place to stay, food, and support.

Interested in volunteering?
Families across our community are still in desperate need of assistance even after they are out of immediate danger. If you are interested in volunteering and helping those in need, please visit the Red Cross website.

State of disaster
Yesterday afternoon, Governor Greg Abbott issued a state of disaster for nine counties impacted by the torrential rains and subsequent flooding, including Harris and Fort Bend counties. This action activates the disaster recovery and rehabilitation aspects of the state emergency management plan and allows our communities to move forward as quickly as possible with recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Other questions?
Please call our Houston office at 713-236-0306 should you or your family need assistance. Additionally, operators for Houston’s 311 system are standing by to assist you with non-emergency questions.

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Houston flooding update

Dear Friend,

Here in the Houston area, we are experiencing extreme flooding after enormous amounts of rain passed through last night and this morning. As I write this, portions of Harris County have received more than 17 inches of rain in the past 24 hours – and more is expected in coming days. The National Weather Service has issued a Flood Warning for Houston until 6:45 pm tonight.

Thirteen bayous and creeks are currently flooded, and more may flood as rain water drains into the bayous. For up-to-date information on the status of local bayous and creeks, please visit the Harris County Flood Warning System website.

In an effort to keep you and your loved ones safe, I urge you to follow emergency management personnel’s recommendations:

  1. Stay at home. Unless you are escaping flood waters, the safest place for you right now is at your home. Houston police and firefighters have put their lives at risk today rescuing hundreds from high water, and you don’t need to risk both your life and theirs by heading out into the flood waters.
  2. Turn around – don’t drown. If you must leave your home, plan where you drive carefully. Do not try to drive through high water, as moving water can quickly submerge a car and push it off the road.
  3. Call 911 if you are experiencing a life-threatening danger. Emergency personnel are there to help you and your family if you believe your life is threatened by rising water or other threats.

State of disaster
Earlier today, I sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that he consider issuing a state of disaster declaration for Harris County and surrounding areas. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has already issued a disaster declaration for the county, and I know that the Governor and his staff are monitoring the Houston area closely.

Shelters
There are designated American Red Cross shelters available if you or your family have experienced flood damage and need a place to stay:

  • M.O. Campbell Educational Center
    • 1865 Aldine Bender Road
    • Houston, Texas 77032
  • Jersey Village Baptist Church
    • 16518 Jersey Drive
    • Jersey Village, Texas 77040

Additional information
Operators for Houston’s 311 system are standing by to assist you with non-emergency questions, so please reach out to them for additional information.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis celebrates $2 million criminal justice grant for Harris County

Yesterday, the MacArthur Foundation announced that Harris County would receive a $2 million grant to reform and improve its criminal justice system. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

Senator Ellis brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, Senator Ellis urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”

In response to the grant, Senator Ellis issues the following statement: “I’m proud to have worked with Commissioner Lee to help advance this effort to work toward a more fair, equal and effective justice system in Harris County.”

“Harris County’s  overreliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing low level and non-violent offenses has resulted in one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the US and the world,” Ellis continued. “It wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our communities safer,  and had a particularly a devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.”

“I hope this first step will inspire our county to work to fix our broken justice system through more effective and less discriminatory law enforcement, jailing and sentencing practices, and ensure all people, no matter what color, ethnicity or income, are treated equally and fairly under the law.”

More information on Harris County’s grant proposal, including a fact sheet, can be found here.

About the MacArthur Foundation

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is the tenth largest private foundation in the United States. It supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world.

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis comments on Equal Pay Day

Today is Equal Pay Day, the symbolic day when women’s earnings “catch up” to men’s earnings from the previous year. The typical woman working full time, year-round in Texas is paid just 79 cents for every dollar a man is paid, which means she has to work until today to be paid as much as the typical man took home by December 31, 2015.

In response, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) issues the following statement:

“Last session, I partnered with Rep. Senfronia Thompson to give Texas women another tool to fight wage discrimination,” said Senator Ellis. “We filed the Texas Equal Pay Act because, quite simply, women deserve equal pay for equal work. The bill would afford victims of wage discrimination the ability to seek restitution in less expensive state courts in front of a locally elected judge and jury of their peers. After all, we should be tearing down hurdles to equal pay, not perpetuating those that already exist.”

Senator Ellis continued: “While the bill didn’t pass, I pledge to continue fighting for an economy that works for all Texans – especially our mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives.”

According to The National Partnership for Women and Families:

• In Texas, median annual pay for a woman who holds a full-time, year-round job is $36,428 while median annual pay for a man who holds a full-time, year-round job is $46,235. This means that women in Texas are paid 79 cents for every dollar paid to men, amounting to an annual wage gap of $9,807.

• The wage gap can be even larger for women of color. Among Texas women who hold fulltime, year-round jobs, African American women are paid 59 cents, Latinas are paid 44 cents and Asian women are paid 78 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

• On average, Texas women who are employed full time lose a combined total of nearly $37 billion every year due to the wage gap.

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Voting rights: the fight continues

Dear Friend,

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the historic voting rights march at Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed their blood, tears, and too often their lives fighting discriminatory tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and brutal acts of terrorism in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. Their sacrifice and achievement continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.

selma march

The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights 


The right to vote and ensuring every eligible citizen has the freedom and ability to elect leaders who reflect their values are the fundamental foundation of our democratic process. But we are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Earlier this month, voters in Harris County and elsewhere around the state were forced to wait in unnecessarily long lines to cast their ballot, the state has continued its efforts to push a discriminatory voter ID law through the courts, and a lawsuit had to be filed against the Texas Department of Public Safety for failure to comply with the Motor Voter Law that allows Texans to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license.

These battles have regrettably become the norm, as we continue to face campaign finance laws that give corporations more of a voice in elections than the people, gerrymandered districts that dilute communities’ voices at the polls, and numerous other tactics to suppress the vote. As a result, Texas often ranks last or near last in the country in voter turnout, and our elected officials too often don’t truly reflect the values of the people.

So the fight continues.

As Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, the committee which handles election-related issues, I sent this letter to the Texas Secretary of State, the state’s chief election officer. In the letter, I asked the Secretary to “begin a dialogue with the legislature, county election officials, and county party officials about the extremely long lines in Harris County” and “investigate what went wrong and provide a list of specific recommendations – both legislative and otherwise – on how best to prevent this from occurring again in the future, including best practices across the country to estimate accurately the likely turnout at a given voting location.”

My letter continued:

I understand that no lines and no wait on Election Day are unrealistic expectations for any election, much less one that captivates the public and turns out thousands of new voters. But as you know, Texas already struggles with voter turnout, often ranking last or near last in the country. Adding long lines to the numerous barriers Texas already puts in place to make voting more difficult threatens to further decrease our disturbingly low levels of civic participation around the state and the overall health of our democracy.

Harris County and the State of Texas have a duty to do everything in their power to ensure the freedom to vote is protected, unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are eliminated, and the voting experience encourages voters to return to the polls in future elections, rather than discourages them.

Voting billboard 2015

Throughout my years in public service I have pushed for commonsense solutions to increase access to the ballot box and protect Texans’ freedom to choose elected officials who reflect their values. I authored the amendment that created Texas’ Motor Voter Law. I fought the Texas voter ID law at every stage and argued in court against Texas’ discriminatory redistricting maps. I have consistently pushed legislation for same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a state holiday to encourage voting, ensuring volunteer deputy registrars can operate in multiple counties, and numerous other reforms to advance and protect the right to vote.

It will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but we owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these commonsense election reforms. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action toward the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.

I hope you will join me. Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in the political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: high quality education regardless of where you live, an honest and fair justice system, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

‘Religious freedom’ proposals mask discriminatory intent

I’m a Baptist living in a state with millions of Christians of all denominations. A 2010 study showed that more Muslims lived in Texas than any other state. The numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists living here are also among the highest in the nation.

Texas is, in fact, one of the most culturally and religiously diverse states in the nation. A big reason for this great diversity is that the Texas and U.S. Constitutions protect religious freedom for everyone, regardless of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental right for everyone in America.

I’m proud of all of this. But I’m disturbed when people argue that the law should permit individuals or businesses to claim religious freedom as an excuse to discriminate against others.

We saw this play out recently with the unfortunate repeal of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, but we’re also hearing the same arguments in support of new laws that would allow individuals, businesses, and even government officials to use religion to discriminate.

That’s wrong and counter to everything I believe as a Christian, American, and Texan.

Supporters of such legislation like to point to shop owners who don’t want to serve people they personally object to for religious reasons.

But that trivializes what’s at stake here. What we’re really talking about is allowing people to be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied public services simply because who they are or whom they love offends someone else’s personal religious beliefs.

That’s not standing up for religious freedom. That’s excusing and even condoning discrimination.

We hear arguments in favor of religious objections mostly when anti-discrimination laws protect our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors. Discrimination against anyone is wrong. Period. But don’t be fooled into thinking that LGBT people will be the only targets if our laws allow the use of religion to discriminate. We know only too well how religion can be misused for such bad works.

After all, folks have relied on the Bible to justify some pretty horrible things in our nation’s history. Slaveholders, for example, asked who could question the Word of God when the Bible said, “slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling” (Ephesians 6:5).

Most Americans today realize such arguments are a shameful part of our history. But now confusing religious freedom with a right to discriminate could drag us back toward those days.

For example, we know that some extreme religious movements preach white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Should people who have those beliefs be able to fire or deny services to someone simply because they’re African-American or Jewish? Most of us surely would say no. But imagine the problems created when the law opens the door to using religion as an excuse to discriminate against anyone. Where do you draw the line? Which discrimination is allowed, and which isn’t?

The problem is even clearer when it involves government. If public officials can refuse to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples for religious reasons, then don’t be surprised when some object to granting licenses to people who have been previously divorced.

Opening the door to using religion as a license to discriminate would call into question numerous state and federal laws that bar discrimination based on characteristics like sex and even religion itself. If an employer believes women working outside the home is sinful, should he be permitted to fire or refuse to hire them? What about workers who belong to a different religion?

That’s not the kind of Texas I want, and laws that would open the door to these dangers are reckless and wrong.

Moreover, if the issue here really is protecting religious freedom, new laws are simply unnecessary. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by the Legislature in 1999, successfully balances the right to religious liberty with the right to be free from unfair discrimination.

Texas must and already does protect the right of individuals to live their personal lives according to their religious beliefs. But allowing people to use religion to refuse to obey laws that protect everyone from harm would put an individual’s religious beliefs ahead of the common good.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with:

Vote. Vote. Vote.

Dear Friends:

President Barack Obama put it best: “I have got a simple message: we’ve got to vote … Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote.”

I’m writing to echo my President’s call to action. Today is Election Day for Texas’ Primary Election, and your voice is needed more than ever to help move our nation, state, and community forward.

Polling sites will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, and remember to bring your ID. If you’re in Harris County, you must vote at your specific polling location – click here to find your Election Day polling place and see a voter-specific ballot. If you’re in Fort Bend County, you may cast your ballot at any vote center location, which you can find listed here.

While the ongoing presidential primary has generated the majority of media coverage, local primary elections are critical to our community’s success. Yet so frequently, Texas ranks among the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2012, voter turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation.

I pledge to continue fighting for voter engagement in our community because I know we can do better, but I need your help. I am asking you to do your part by voting today and encouraging your friends, family, and coworkers to do the same. Make sure your community reflects your values by having your voice heard. Your voice is important. Your vote is important.

Know your rights!

If you have any questions about voting or concerns about your experience at the ballot box, please call the Voter Protection Hotline at 1-844-TXVOTES. It’s a free, public hotline that Texas voters can call with voting questions in English or Spanish. Hotline operators are lawyers or law students who have been specially trained in election law, and they’ve already helped thousands of Texans navigate the electoral system.

Voter ID: what you need to know

While ongoing litigation sorts out the future of voter ID, the law is currently in effect and you must comply in order to vote. Voter ID requires all voters to present one of the following forms of photo identification in order to be eligible to vote:

  • Driver’s license, election identification certificate, personal identification card, or concealed handgun license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety;
  • U.S. military identification card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. citizenship certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. passport.

With the exception of the U.S. citizenship certificate, all of the forms of identification must be current or have expired no more than 60 days before being presented at the polling place.

If you or a family member do not have one of the forms of photo identification listed above, there is a free option available. The voter ID law created a new form of photo identification called an election identification certificate, which the Texas Department of Public Safety will issue for free at any driver’s license office.

More information may be obtained by clicking here or calling the Texas Secretary of State’s office at 1-800-252-VOTE.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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