Pastor Protection Act headed to Florida Senate for a vote

By : Jamie Hyman
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Tallahassee – The Pastor Protection Act, an unnecessary, anti-gay bill that purports to prevent religious leaders from being forced to perform same-sex weddings, is headed to the full Florida Senate.

On Feb. 17, SB110 cleared its final hurdle when the Rules Committee voted 7-3 in favor of the legislation. The bill is redundant, as under current laws protecting religious beliefs, clergy can already opt out of marrying any couple they choose, gay or straight.

The Rules Committee meeting kicked off with Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville), the bill’s sponsor, declaring that “This is a celebration of religious freedom.”

Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) introduced an amendment at would have defined religious organizations to line up with Florida’s current Civil Rights Act. In its current form, the bill leaves “religious organizations” undefined, simply “providing that churches or religious organizations, related organizations, or certain individuals may not be required to solemnize any marriage or provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods, or privileges for related purposes if such action would violate a sincerely held religious belief.”

“We thought that the scope should be defined in a way that would avoid litigation,” Soto told the committee.

Carlos Smith, with Equality Florida, told the committee that while EQFL doesn’t support the bill, they support religious exemptions from performing same-sex marriages and if the committee agreed to approve Soto’s amendment, “our organization would withdraw opposition to the bill.”

“Not because we suddenly believe this to be a good bill, we still believe it’s unnecessary, but because no one would be harmed by the passage of this bill in the version that Sen. Soto has presented,” Smith said. “It has not broadened religious objections beyond what is currently allowed.”

Following committee questions on the amendment, a parade of fundamentalist clergy approached the pulpit to testify as to why the bill should not be amended. Things got heated when Pastor Gilberto Rodriguez with Temple Elijah Church out of Lutz claimed Soto’s amendment would somehow make the bill “vague” and “can be used against the church.”

When Soto asked Rodriguez why they shouldn’t use a well-established, uniform definition, Rodriguez told him, “It just kind of concerns me when you’ve been completely against the church in your presentations in last meetings. For you to come and bring an amendment, it kind of concerns us that basically you don’t have the best intent or the best reason for any presentation.”

At this point, Sen. Don Gaetz interrupted Rodriguez with a point of order.

“[Sen. Soto] and I may disagree on this bill but you do not impugn the religious beliefs of a member of this committee,” Gaetz told Rodriguez firmly, and Soto added, “For the record, I am a confirmed Catholic.”

After further comment from both supporters and detractors, Soto offered to remove the public accommodations portion of the amendment but his proposal was still voted down 7-3.

Then the committee heard comments on the bill itself, with clergy testifying both for and against it. Rodriguez made another appearance, during which he for some reason informed the committee, “My sister was a gay.”

John Vertigan, a minister with the United Church of Christ out of Oviedo, told the committee that after he previously testified against the bill, other religious leaders reacted angrily and told him he wasn’t a “real” minister.

“I’m convinced this bill is not about protecting pastors, rather, it is quite obviously a political ploy,” he told the committee.

Following testimony by a man who told the committee they’re only to serve “King Jesus,” Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) stated: “King Jesus was inclusive also. I don’t believe this bill gives any more protection to a person who doesn’t want to solemnize a marriage.”

In closing, Sen. Bean was optimistic the bill will never be needed.

“I want to be a uniter [sic],” Bean said. “It wasn’t my intention that this bill would be so divisive.”


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