Church and state collided Wednesday in a Capitol hearing room crowded with dozens of clergy members, as a House panel advanced a controversial “pastor protection act” prompted by the U.S. Supreme Court decision which legalized same-sex marriage.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said his proposal (HB 43) is an “extra layer of protection” intended to assure that clergy do not have to perform same-sex marriages if they violate their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Plakon acknowledged the U.S. Constitution already shields clergy and religious organizations from being forced to conduct such ceremonies. But since the justices’ ruling in June, many ministers and social conservatives have grown increasingly alarmed, he said.
“There have been numerous changes in the law and culture,” Plakon said. “This just makes it clear” that Florida clergy can decline to conduct such ceremonies.
But clergy attending the House Civil Justice subcommittee were divided over the bill. Critics blasted it as little more than pushback from those who oppose same-sex marriage.
“Look at the true intent of this bill,” said Rev. Harold Thompson, with United Church of Christ in Miami Beach. “It’s not to protect the pastors or protect the churches, it’s to protect an agenda.”
Rev. Brant Copeland, of Tallahassee’s First Presbyterian Church, also said he was offended by what he called the legislation’s message to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender Floridians.
“It’s that somehow an LGBT person who is looking to get married is a threat to other people of faith,” Copeland said. “I urge you not to adopt this unnecessary and, I think, basically homophobic bill.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith, representing Equality Florida, which advocates for LGBT issues, said his organization would defend any church sued.
“But we know that is not going to be necessary,” he said. “We know that the existing and clearly defined constitutional protections mean such an imaginary lawsuit would not have any legal basis.”
Supporters, however, said that a state law would assist in discouraging lawsuits against a clergy member or religious institution that declined to perform marriages or provide services and facilities for a wedding.
Following heated testimony from both sides, the Republican-dominated panel approved the legislation in a 9-4, party-line vote.
The bill also is portrayed by backers as thwarting any possible backlash against a church’s tax-exempt status, right to apply for grants and participate in government programs, if it refuses to sanction same-sex marriages.
Plakon’s bill is modeled after legislation signed into law in Texas just days after the high court ruling. He called the approach, “proactive, rather than reactive.”
“In an ideal world, the (constitutional protections) would apply,” said Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition. “But we live in the real world, and we need your help.”
Citing a Colorado court ruling against a bakery which refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, Rep. Greg Squires of Kissimmee’s Freedom Life Church, said ministers are uneasy.
“Why could (lawsuits) not come to us?” Squires told the subcommittee. “Even though we say it’s in our constitution, that just depends upon the person who is ruling at the moment and how they see it. And you know how that goes, you’re in politics.”
The Colorado decision stemmed from the bakery violating a state law barring businesses from refusing service because of sexual orientation.
Squires and lawmakers failed to point out that although Palm Beach County and more than two dozen governments, mostly across Central and South Florida, bar discrimination against LGBT residents at work, in housing, restaurants and public accommodations, there is no statewide prohibition.
Legislation to expand the state’s civil rights laws to include LGBT Floridians has been filed, but has failed, for several years.
In Wednesday’s hearing, Democratic and Republican lawmakers also squared off over Plakon’s approach.
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, labeled the proposal, “legislation in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.”
But Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, said a changing legal landscape warranted such action.
“If the Legislature doesn’t provide direction, the judiciary will be happy to fill the vacuum,” Metz said.