Debate Brewing Over 'Pastor Protection Act'

Jul 20, 2015

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing the right to same-sex marriage, some Florida clergy members and lawmakers are mobilizing to ensure legal exemptions for religious organizations.

On July 1st, Chris Walker, a pastor at the Cathedral of Power International Church in Clermont, launched a petition on calling for Governor Rick Scott to sign a "Pastor Protection Act" into law. The petition has garnered over 22,000 signatures.

Walker says he recognizes that same-sex couples now have the right to marry, but "we want our right to say no, and we want it in writing."

Walker's petition at calls for a bill that will "be clear that religious leaders and houses of worship can't be forced by the government to violate their faith where marriage is concerned. … Religious leaders in the state of Florida must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that religious freedom is beyond the reach of government or coercion by the courts."

Walker is working with state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, to draft the bill.

Advocacy organizations say religious leaders are already protected by the First Amendment. Carlos Guillermo Smith, manager of governmental affairs for the LGBT rights group Equality Florida, called the Pastor Protection Act "a solution in search of a problem."

"Members of the clergy have the right to decide if they don't think a couple is a good fit for any reason," Smith said. "That includes refusing to perform wedding ceremonies for interracial couples, as well as for gay couples. They can and do refuse people who have different faiths. They can and do refuse people who have been previously married."

Smith said the legislation is not only unnecessary, it sends an "ugly message" to the LGBT community.

Credit WUSF

The proposed legislation, which is expected to be based on a new Texas law, is a reaction to last month's Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.

Plakon acknowledged that religious leaders are currently protected from performing marriages to which they object. But he said the landscape is changing so fast that additional protection is needed.

"Five years ago, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both believed in traditional marriage," he said. "And (last month) the White House is lit up in rainbow colors. The trajectory of this is moving so that there is a lot of concern about where it ends."

Walker agreed, saying the First Amendment protections were "absolutely not" sufficient. He said people's First Amendment rights are being threatened all over the country. "I should not be sued because I'm preaching what the holy scripture talks about," he added.

For others, the issue isn't so clear. Chris Atwood, a pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Miami, said he would feel comfortable serving as a same-sex couple's spiritual guide, but he wouldn't officiate at the marriage.

"I am confused on the issue," Atwood said. "Because it seems to me like the Bible very clearly has condemnations of it, but at the same time I'm sitting in front of two people that seem like they should be married."

The First Presbyterian Church of Miami is still deciding what its policy towards same-sex marriage will be. As church leaders move forward with internal discussions, Atwood said they would be listening to members, too.

Marriage, Atwood said, "is a spiritual thing, not a legal thing." And, he pointed out, "the word 'spirit' in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament is the same word as 'wind.' It blows where it wants sometimes, so we have to be responsive and listen."