A bill allowing religious groups to deny marriages to same-sex couples cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature on Wednesday, passing a House panel.
The Pastor Protection Act (HB 43) was written in response to increasing uncertainty in the law after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage this summer, bill supporters say. It passed the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on a 9-4 vote along party lines, with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats against.
Sponsors Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Bob Cortes, R- Altamonte Springs, said the legislation is necessary to give pastors additional protection, clarifying the religious freedoms in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"As everyone knows, there's been numerous changes in the law and the culture recently, so this law is designed to make clear in Florida statutes that no religious organization will have to perform or solemnize a marriage that violates their religious beliefs," Plakon said to the committee.
Then followed nearly two hours of passionate testimony, much of it from pastors across Florida on both sides of the issue.
Supporters argue that although the First Amendment has been interpreted to allow pastors and churches to choose who they will and will not marry, this will give an additional layer of protection in state law. It's an issue of religious freedom, they say.
"Our world is changing, people are changing, laws are changing," said Richard King, a pastor from Eustis, Fla. "But God does not change."
Opponents, however, say an additional law is unnecessary, especially one that simply reinforces such a central constitutional right.
"No law is going to stop lawsuits, especially in the face of the fact that the United States Constitution clearly says that pastors have the right -- and rightfully so -- to decide who they want to marry," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg.
Their concern goes beyond that, however. Carlos Guillermo-Smith, lobbyist for LGBT activism group Equality Florida, said his group supports the idea behind the legislation: that pastors shouldn't be forced to take part in any wedding they aren't comfortable with.
In fact, he said, Equality Florida would contribute to a church's legal defense if it were sued by a same-sex couple after being turned away.
He worries, though, that it could be rewritten and changed in future committees or on the floor of the House or Senate.