TX reps OK bill for churches to report sex predators

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AUSTIN, Texas (BP) -- The Texas House of Representatives has passed a bill shielding from civil liability churches that disclose credible sexual abuse allegations -- but the bill has only 17 days to pass the Senate this legislative session.

Representatives May 8 unanimously approved House Bill 4345, assigned today (May 10) to the Senate State Affairs committee. The House bill would protect charitable organizations, their volunteers and independent contractors from liability when disclosing such information to prospective employers, even when no criminal charges have been filed against the accused. A May 7 amendment extended protection to independent contractors, previously not included.

Southern Baptists at the state and national level initiated the bill, including Ben Wright, chairman of the Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC). He's hopeful the legislation will pass the Senate before the legislature ends its 2019 session May 27.

"It's certainly encouraging, the passage, that it was unanimous," Wright told Baptist Press today. "If we don't have time this year, we'll come back in a couple of years when the legislature's back in session."

The next regular session begins the second Tuesday in January 2021 for the body that meets every other year.

The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission helped draft the bill. Wright, pastor of Cedar Pointe Baptist Church in Cedar Park, Texas, worked with Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and others to recruit Rep. Scott Sanford to introduce the bill. Sanford has recruited Sen. Joan Huffman, State Affairs Committee chair, to sponsor the bill in the Senate, Sanford's Austin office told BP.

Jim Richards, SBTC executive director, expressed gratitude for Sanford's work. Sanford is a former member of the SBTC ethics committee and is executive pastor of Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen.

"I am grateful for the leadership of Representative Scott Sanford, an associate pastor at one of our SBTC churches, in the progress of this bill," Richards told BP today. "We sincerely hope this will be a tool that will facilitate making our churches safer as they seek to reach their communities for Christ."

In April, the SBTC Executive Board removed from its roster New Spirit Baptist Church in San Antonio for retaining a pastor listed on the Texas Public Sex Offender Registry, the Southern Baptist TEXAN reported May 2. See related story.

Wright believes the legislation would "make it less likely that abusers and exploiters will harm again," but has said the bill would not solve all problems related to abuse and sexual misconduct.

"It does help churches and organizations know that if they pass on information that they believe to be true," he told BP shortly after the bill was introduced in March, "that they have good reason to believe is true, it helps them know that they will be shielded from potential lawsuits."

The bill does not protect from liability nonprofits "acting in bad faith or with a malicious purpose," according to the bill posted on the Texas Legislature website.

"A charitable organization, or an employee, volunteer, or independent contractor of a charitable organization, acting in good faith, is immune from civil liability for any act to disclose to an individual's current or prospective employer information reasonably believed to be true," the bill states, "about an allegation that an individual who was employed by or served as a volunteer or independent contractor for the charitable organization or its associated charitable organizations engaged in sexual misconduct, sexually abused another individual, sexually harassed another individual," or committed an offense under any one of several related offenses named in the bill.

See BP's earlier story. The text of House Bill 4345 is available at https://capitol.texas.gov/BillLookup.

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