TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – Responding to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year, the Florida Legislature is poised to pass a controversial bill aimed at protecting clergy members who object to performing wedding ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.
The measure (HB 43), dubbed the “Pastor Protection Act,” was approved Wednesday by the House and was quickly taken up by the Senate. A final Senate vote could come as early as Thursday, with approval sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott.
The bill was filed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry. House sponsor Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Senate sponsor Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said the bill would protect churches, clergy and church employees who decline to perform marriage ceremonies contrary to their beliefs.
“The bill is a shield. It is not a sword,” Bean said. “Pastors have asked for protection because they’re fearful of being discriminated against.”
He said 17 other states have passed similar protections since the Supreme Court ruling in June in a case known as Obergefell v. Hodges.
But in the House and Senate, opponents contended that the First Amendment already protects pastors who refuse to perform same-sex weddings. They challenged supporters to show that any religious organizations have been punished for discriminating against same-sex couples.
Rep. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat whose wife is a rabbi, compared it to passing a bill against aliens landing in Florida.
“This is just unneeded regulation,” Rader said. “It is just a crazy thing. A pastor protection act, from what? What pastor needs it?”
Bean said lawsuits have not yet come, in part, because the Supreme Court decision was just nine months ago. He compared the bill to getting a flu shot to prevent “something bad” from happening — in this case, a lawsuit against a pastor or church for refusing to participate in a same-sex wedding.
“I hope this bill is never needed,” Bean said.
In both chambers, opponents said the bill would open the door for pastors to refuse to marry mixed-race couples or divorced people. And they said it sent a message of exclusion to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Floridians.
“It’s a mean-spirited jab at the LGBT community… a prima facie that says, ‘Not Welcome,’ ” said Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa.
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, likened the bill to “spitting at someone’s feet” and said the House is “on the wrong side of history.”
But Rep. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican and former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, said the Obergefell ruling had shaken the worldview of conservative Christians.
“If there is anybody under assault and discrimination, I’ll tell you who it is,” Baxley said. “It is anyone who holds a biblical world view, and is simply trying to live by it. They are under assault. We are called haters.”
Plakon also said the final version of the bill represented a compromise with the American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Equality Florida. In exchange for limiting the bill’s reach to religious institutions — and keeping it out of the private sector — those groups agreed to withdraw their opposition.
“We withdrew our opposition because one of the major agreements by both of the bill sponsors was that Florida was not going to go in the same direction as Georgia and expand the pastor-protection law to include adoption agencies and for-profit businesses that serve the public,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida.
He said that Georgia last month passed a pastor-protection act that at the “11th hour” was expanded to include such things.
“Now that the bill is no longer subject to harmful amendments, we are less concerned about the legal impact,” said Michelle Richardson of the ACLU of Florida. “But the members should certainly think about the message the bill sends to gay Floridians.”
Watching the proceedings was the Rev. Chris Walker, pastor of the Cathedral Power International Church in Clermont. Walker authored an online petition about the pastor-protection issue that has drawn more than 24,000 signatures since July.
The petition came to Plakon’s attention and helped lead to the bill, which passed the House in a 82-37 vote.
“I say we need the bill, because who would have thought the Supreme Court would redefine what God had already defined?” Walker said. “We are in uncharted waters right now. We don’t know what’s going to take place, and this bill needed to be here so that we would have that protection for the future.”
The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.