The so called Pastor Protection Act is poised for hearings on the floor of both the Florida House and Senate. The measure aims to protect churches and clergy from lawsuits if they decline to participate in a marriage ceremony that violates their religious beliefs. But gay rights activists say the bill unfairly targets same sex couples.
Some say the measure isn’t needed, saying pastors already have protections in the First Amendment. And the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) says he hopes the added protections in his measure are never used.
“I’m optimistic that this bill will never be needed. If no one would ever challenge a clergyman or a clergyperson it will never be needed,” Bean says.
But Bean says that’s not something he feels comfortable leaving to chance.
“I couldn’t have told you that the Supreme Court would have redefined a traditional definition of marriage that our country was founded on. So, I’m optimistic that hopefully it won’t be. But it is, I believe and scholars have told me, and other states have said that it is needed to go forward because we’re in a new era,” Bean says.
But ask any member of the clergy whether they want the bill and their opinions seems to be split. John Vertigan is a minister at the United Church of Christ in Florida. He spoke before the Senate Rules committee.
“I’m convinced this bill is not about protecting pastors. My kind or any other kind—Christian or otherwise. Rather it is quite obviously, to me, a political ploy intended to project an establishment of a religious doctrine into a place where the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution clearly prohibits it. I’ll close by saying the United Church of Christ is proud to claim and defend the religious freedoms upon which this nation was created and I’m convinced those freedoms are safely held in the writings of the founders,” Vertigan says.
And Gerald Bustin is a pastor at Open Door Community Church in Summerfield.
“I’ve been a missionary for years. I worked among cannibals in New Guinea and it was a loving thing to tell them it’s wrong to eat people. I also believe it’s loving to tell people the truth from the word of God. And Jesus himself said, ‘do you not know that god created the male and female and for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and be joined to his woman and these two shall become one?’ That’s the definition of marriage that Jesus gave us. I stand with that definition of marriage,” Bustin says.
Bustin says a vote against the bill is a vote against Christianity and the freedom for Christians to practice their religion. But members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, or LGBT community say the measure is clearly meant as an attack against them. Carlos Guillermo Smith represents the group Equality Florida.
“We’ve had some very real problems with the bill from the beginning. First and foremost that we don’t think it’s necessary. Second that we have been anxious that it could be expanded beyond its current scope, but also because as Senator Soto mentioned in his presentation of his strike all, there are some very legitimate concerns and questions around the ambiguity of who would be covered, which entities would be covered,” Guillermo Smith says.
But Guillermo Smith told the Senate Rules committee his organization would remove its opposition with the adoption of the amendment he mentioned by Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando). He says Soto’s amendment supplies clear a definition of religious organization.
“Of course we support churches and clergy and houses or worship—even broader definitions actually to make sure that we are covering every religious entity, that we are covering lay people who may not be employed by the church, but are performing a ministerial function,” Soto says.
The amendment failed and lawmakers passed the bill. Its next scheduled stop is the Senate floor. Meanwhile, a similar measure in the House is in the same position.