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Florida Advances Unnecessary Pastor Protection Act

Florida Advances Unnecessary Pastor Protection Act

Rep. Scott Plakon

The bill aims to affirm clergy members' right to refuse to perform same-sex marriages — a right they already have under the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Constitution assures that clergy members won't be forced to perform any marriage they don't endorse, but that's not good enough for some Florida lawmakers, who today advanced a piece of state legislation that does the same thing.

The Pastor Protection Act, approved by the Florida House Civil Justice Subcommittee, would provide an "extra layer of protection" for clergy who oppose same-sex marriage, said its sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Plakon, according to The Palm Beach Post.

The subcommittee approved the measure by a vote of 9-4, Republicans in favor, Democrats against. It now goes to the Judiciary Committee, which will consider whether to move it on to the full House. The Senate has yet to take it up.

The vote came after the subcommittee heard impassioned testimony both for and against the bill. Plakon acknowledged that the Constitution's First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of religion, already assures that clergy members have discretion over who they'll marry. But because of "numerous changes in the law and culture," the state law needs to make clear that they're free to decline to perform ceremonies that conflict with their beliefs, he said.

Some who testified for the bill pointed out cases of bakers and other providers of wedding-related services who've been sued and fined for discrimination for turning away same-sex couples, the Post reports.

"Why could [lawsuits] not come to us?" Rev. Greg Squires of the Freedom Life Church in Kissimmee 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."

Carlos Guillermo Smith of the LGBT group Equality Florida said his organization would defend any clergy member or house of worship that was sued. "But we know that is not going to be necessary," he said, according to the Post. "We know that the existing and clearly defined constitutional protections mean such an imaginary lawsuit would not have any legal basis."

It also might be hard to sue even a for-profit business in Florida for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- there is no statewide law against such discrimination, although some municipalities have inclusive antidiscrimination ordinances, the Post notes.

Some clergy members, from LGBT-friendly denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ, said the bill is rooted in homophobia. "It's that somehow an LGBT person who is looking to get married is a threat to other people of faith," said Rev. Brant Copeland of the First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. "I urge you not to adopt this unnecessary and, I think, basically homophobic bill."

Texas and Oklahoma have passed similar laws this year, and the idea has been floated in some other states, including Georgia and Tennessee.

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