Florida Lawmakers Advance Pastor Protection Act

By John Celock

Florida lawmakers advanced legislation that would allow religious leaders to decline to perform same sex weddings without penalty.

The state House of Representatives passed the Pastor Protection Act by a vote of 82-37 Wednesday after a debate where opponents of the bill said that it would be a mark of discrimination against the LGBT community. Supporters said that the bill would provide a level of protection for faith leaders who decide they do not want to perform a wedding that may contrast with their beliefs.

“If there is anyone who is under assault it is anyone who lives a biblical world view and wants to live by it.” Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) said. “Our leadership in the faith community needs protections.”

Baxley said that faith leaders have been worried about what would happen if they decided not to perform a same sex wedding. Under the terms of the bill, religious leaders who decline to perform same sex weddings would not face civil or criminal penalties.

Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), the bill’s sponsor, stressed that the legislation was crafted in consultation with the ACLU and Equality Florida about who would be covered. Equality Florida has said they are neutral on the bill, having opposed it in the past. Plakon said the bill was needed following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year to legalize same sex marriage nationwide.

Several states have included protections for religious leaders in crafting same sex marriage proposals prior to the Supreme Court ruling. Language covering religious leaders opting out of performing same sex weddings was part of the agreement, which advanced same sex marriage in New York State in 2011.

Several states have considered legislation that would allow private business owners to opt out of providing services for same sex weddings if they were opposing such weddings due to strongly held religious beliefs.

Opponents of the measure described the measure as discriminatory and unnecessary in Florida. Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach), the only openly gay member of the state House, told his colleagues they should focus on the “issues most important to the state of Florida,” rather than the Pastor Protection Act.

Rep. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) took to the floor talking about her daughter, who is a lesbian. She said that she wanted to defend her daughter and the LGBT community and encourage her colleagues to vote down the bill.

“To stand here and defend her today and defend her right to love who she loves. I have to speak up to defend my daughter and the other gay young men and women who live in this state and who worry about discrimination around every corner,” Cruz said. “We’ve come so far, we’ve come so far in this state. I will ask you today to consider what you’re doing when you press that button.”