A Bill called the Pastor Protection Act has cleared subcommittees this past week in the Florida Legislature, and its next stop will be the House floor. The Bill is being sold as an extra layer of protection for Florida Churches and clergy who refuse to perform marriage ceremonies, and comes in the wake of the legalization of gay marriage across the nation via the U.S. Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges.
“It is clear that some churches and pastors who sincerely refuse to perform a marriage ceremony will be sued,” Representative Larry Metz, Republican from Yalaha, said. “And activists when they go after them in court will choose their court venues and their defendants carefully. So in order to ensure that we have protection we need to pass this bill. Without the bill, Florida pastors who are sued will insure very exorbitant attorney’s fees.”
However, no such lawsuits have been filed, and opponents of the Bill see as needlessly divisive and ultimately meaningless, due to the protections churches already have under the First Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights. In fact, clergy here in Florida are divided over the Bill and what it means.
Some felt it to be a necessary bulwark against hypothetical legal actions, such as Armando Reeves, a Clearwater Pastor who serves on the Pinellas County Hispanic Pastor Association. Reeves spoke before the committee.
“I have to tell you on behalf of the pastors that we represent, we need it and we want it,” Reeves said.
Others felt it to be redundant, and even harmful.
“It will not protect pastors,” Pastor Harold Thompson from Miami Beach said about the Bill. “They’re already protected. But what it will do is create discrimination and classism. It will hurt individuals.”
“It will rip apart how we understand our faith and how we practice it,” Thompson continued.
“And I am here to tell you, I don’t need it and I don’t want it,” Elder Clair Watson Chase from the United Methodist Church added. “I don’t need it because as we have established the first amendment definitely protects me. The constitution isn’t going to be changed on this issue. Religious freedom is a cornerstone of being an American. I feel safe.”
On the last day it was in Committee, Democrat Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez made an attempt to narrow the language of the Bill down to more clearly define what constituted a religious group in the bill’s language. However, Rodriguez’s proposed amendment was quickly shot down, with Republican Representative Julio Gonzalez stating that he felt the amendment would just serve to muddy the bill’s intent.
“I don’t view this amendment as suspicious," Gonzalez said. "There is a protection for LGBTs, a protection that allows them to be married, but now we must address a protection for the pastors."
Opponents feel the bill is nothing more than election year red meat, and its only intent is to stoke fears that religious liberty is under assault.
“We are not aware of any churches or pastors or members of the clergy who have ever been sued because they made the decision to not solemnize a wedding,” Carlos Guillermo Smith of Equality Florida, a gay rights advocacy group, said. “This is an election year, and the reason this bill is being considered is because of politics.”
A similar bill in the senate is currently passing through committees.