Florida Legislature passes protections for pastors who refuse same-sex weddings

Published March 3 2016
Updated March 4 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Gay-rights and religious groups are declaring victory after Florida lawmakers passed protections for churches that refuse to take part in same-sex weddings.

The Florida Senate voted for the bill Thursday to make religious organizations immune from lawsuits when they deny couples. That approval, though, came only after the bill's language was changed in a compromise between conservative lawmakers and gay-rights groups.

Under the law, pastors can't be sued or lose their tax-exempt status for refusing to take part in any wedding.

Sponsor Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, characterized his bill as a "shield" for religious groups after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last summer.

"We're here because a traditional definition of marriage that many held sacred and part of their religious beliefs was turned upside down," he said.

The Senate passed the legislation, called the Pastor Protection Act, on a 23-15 vote, the day after the House approved it 82-37.

Gov. Rick Scott plans to sign it into law, a spokeswoman said.

Christian groups brought pastors to Tallahassee for several weeks through the legislative session to push for the bill.

Anthony Verdugo, executive director of the Christian Family Coalition, said the bill makes sure no church is treated differently following the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling. "People of faith, houses of worship and clergy need to be protected against discrimination," he said.

Some gay-rights activists say that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment provides enough protection to stop lawsuits when pastors deny couples they don't agree with and that the law doesn't add any protections beyond that. But Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said that's not the point.

"It's an insult to the gay community," he said.

Bean and other supporters say the bill is needed in case lawsuits are filed that target churches for turning away gay couples.

"It's much like taking a flu shot," Bean said. "You don't know what's coming down the line."

Early this week, one of the main opponents of the bill, Equality Florida, removed its opposition. The group worked with Bean and House sponsor Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, to make the bill more narrow by replacing a broad reference to "religious organizations" with a list of specific kinds of groups protected under the law.

Nevertheless, all 14 Senate Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah, voted against it. In the House, it drew opposition from 36 Democrats and Republican Rep. Bill Hager.

Some opponents said the bill is problematic because it doesn't only address same-sex weddings.

The law clarifies that religious organizations can refuse to take part in weddings for any reason that violates their religious beliefs.

"It might turn the clock back," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. "Some institution in its interpretation of this law can say 'It's against our religious belief to marry a black woman and a white man.'"

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this story.

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