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Sides Line Up To Debate Florida 'Pastor Protection Act' In Tallahassee

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A debate is again building in the state Capitol about same-sex marriage as conservative lawmakers back a proposal known as the "Pastor Protection Act."

The proposal, which was approved this week by a Senate committee, would prevent clergy members from being forced to perform marriage ceremonies contrary to their beliefs. Religious conservatives are backing the bill in the wake of last year's landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.

The proposal's supporters say it also would help protect the tax-exempt status of religious organizations that don't want to take part in marriages that violate their beliefs.

"This is just an extra layer of protection under Florida law, to give pastors and other religious practitioners comfort that they can go about what they do without worrying about being persecuted for that or even criminally charged," said Rep. Scott Plakon (R- Longwood), who is sponsoring the House version of the proposal (HB 43).

But Carlos Guillermo Smith of the gay-rights advocacy group Equality Florida called the proposal "an invented problem" aimed at getting religious conservatives to the polls.

"We are not aware of any churches or pastors or members of the clergy who have ever been sued because they made the decision to not solemnize a wedding," he said. "This is an election year, and the reason this bill is being considered is because of politics."

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday voted 7-3 along party lines to support the Senate version of the proposal (SB 110), filed by Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach). The issue was slated to go before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday but got postponed after consideration of a controversial gun bill lasted nearly three hours.

Supporters and opponents of the "Pastor Protection Act" said they would return when it comes up next week, and Plakon said the bill's chances wouldn't be harmed by the delay.

"There's plenty of time left in session, and this is the last stop before the House floor," he said. The Senate version, meanwhile, faces two more committees.

Supporters acknowledge that the First Amendment protects religious leaders from performing marriages to which they object, but Bean said pastors "are in doubt as to their religious freedom."

The Rev. Chris Walker, pastor of the Cathedral of Power International Church in Clermont, was in the Capitol this week and said he fears that future court rulings will prevent him from preaching according to his beliefs. Walker was the author of an online petition about the pastor-protection issue that has drawn more than 24,000 signatures since July.

"I don't care who you marry, but I want to be able to preach the gospel that way it is written," he said Thursday. "Now, if they choose to change it, twist it, however you want to do it. … But I am charged to preach the bible in its raw, biblical form." 

Equality Florida's Guillermo Smith said his group was more concerned with defending against free-speech abuses than perpetuating them.

"We know, based on experience from other legislatures in other states, that religious exemptions have always been ripe for abuse and create loopholes for people to use religion to discriminate against others and impose their beliefs on others  and sometimes to harm people," he said. "And we oppose that."

© 2016 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved.