TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Amid signs of distrust on both sides of the emotionally charged issue, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted along party lines Wednesday to approve a bill that would allow pastors to refuse to officiate at weddings that violate their religious beliefs.
The bill (HB 43), which passed the panel on a 9-4 vote, would also clarify that churches and other religious organizations don’t have to “provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges” to support any marriage that violates the organizations’ theological practices.
Supporters say the legislation simply reinforces the guarantee of religious freedom found in the First Amendment after the U.S. Supreme Court this summer struck down bans on same-sex marriage across the nation.
“The court has redefined marriage as we see it today,” said Rep. Charlie Stone, R-Ocala. “So what’s to say the court won’t redefine what a (member of the) clergy can do next week, next month, next year?”
But opponents say it is an unnecessary attempt to ostracize lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians and to strike back at the decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
“The bill will create fear and confusion in the public and perpetuate the lie that religious freedom and basic human rights are in conflict with one another,” said Rev. Paul Gibson, a gay pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg.
Gibson urged lawmakers to focus on bills helping seniors, children, migrants and LGBT Floridians.
“These people need your protection, but I know that pastors do not,” he said.
During an emotional but largely restrained discussion of the bill, signs of distrust between the opposing sides — and sometimes even among those who support the legislation’s goals — continued to seep through.
While the Supreme Court’s opinion in the same-sex marriage case seemed to make clear that churches would be free to follow their doctrines when it comes to gay rights, religious conservatives voiced fears that the nation’s rapidly changing legal landscape on the issue could shift again.
Rev. Charlene E. Cothran, a former lesbian activist who is now senior pastor at ZION Baptist Church in Palm Coast, suggested the advocates she once worked for might not be completely honest.
“We have all seen the progressive, forward-marching, bullying spirit of the gay political machine,” Cothran said. “In my experience as a gay activist, it was our learned strategy not to show all of our cards. It was our learned strategy to keep the large plan secret.”
For their part, LGBT supporters at the meeting didn’t dispute that churches should be free to choose whom they marry. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida, one the state’s most prominent gay-rights organizations, said his group would be willing to defend any church that refused to marry a gay couple and would even contribute to the congregation’s defense fund.
But Guillermo Smith said he was concerned about what could happen to the legislation in the future.
“At best, it’s an insulting proposal that is pretty much a simple disapproval of same-sex relationships by a secular government,” he said. “But what’s worse, and what our top concern is, is that this bill is a Trojan horse which can be a vehicle that will bring even more anti-LGBT legislation to our state.”
While every Democrat on the subcommittee opposed the bill, two African-American members from Miami said they would be willing to support a bill more narrowly tailored to protect members of the clergy from officiating at same-sex weddings.
But Rep. Kionne McGhee, the panel’s top Democrat, and Rep. Cynthia Stafford said they were worried that the bill could open the door for racial discrimination by white supremacists who claim to base their racism on religious grounds.
“As it currently states today in the language that we have before us, we have a dangerous, dangerous bill that can explode at any moment and rewrite our history books and return us to the days of Jim Crow,” McGhee said.
But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said the legislation shouldn’t be limited in case of unanticipated conflicts between marriage laws and religious beliefs. He also suggested that changing the language to focus on same-sex marriages “could look like you’re singling somebody out.”
Plakon also said he disagreed with some of the concerns raised at the meeting.
“They seem to be talking about a bill other than this one,” he said. “So I think that this would be mainly for (same-sex marriage), but I don’t see any reason or I didn’t hear any reason today why you would simply say that.”
The News Service Of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.