Debate Brewing Over 'Pastor Protection Act'
In the wake of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, a proposal by Republican lawmakers dubbed the "Pastor Protection Act" could fuel a debate during next year's legislative session.
Backers of the measure, which is expected to be filed by state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, are already organizing on its behalf. The proposal is aimed at safeguarding clergy members from being forced to perform marriage ceremonies contrary to their principles, supporters say.
Plakon is collaborating with the Rev. Chris Walker, pastor of the Cathedral of Power International Church in Clermont and the author of an online petition that has garnered more than 21,000 signatures since July 1.
"Church networks are being mobilized as we speak," Walker said. "I am being asked to speak at a lot of churches and groups to mobilize this movement, and we're going to be very vigilant about protecting our rights to preach the Gospel."
Walker's petition at change.org 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."
But Nadine Smith, executive director of the advocacy group Equality Florida, said religious leaders are already protected by the First Amendment.
"They can and do refuse interracial couples," Smith said. "They can and do refuse gay couples. They can and do refuse people who have different faiths. They can and do refuse people who have been previously married. They can just decide they don't think you're a good fit and refuse to conduct the ceremony."
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."
Signers of Walker's petition echoed concerns about where the debate will move in the future.
"The Christians in this country are being persecuted for not agreeing with Sin, yes same Sex relationship is a Sin, just like killing babies is a Sin," wrote Maurice Szust of Miami.
"I'm signing because the United States of America says that we stand on the Holy Bible, but our government has pulled totally away from what they say they are founded on," wrote another supporter of the petition, Kenyon Turner of Apopka.
Walker has never been asked to perform a same-sex wedding. He said that while he wasn't aware of any clergy member being sued for not doing so in Florida, "there are constant threats of it."
Plakon said he hopes to keep the discussion at a "higher level" and has offered to meet with Equality Florida.
But Smith isn't buying it.
"This is intended to be an ugly show of animosity toward gay people," she said. "It has nothing to do with protecting religious freedom