PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A measure that sought to protect clergy members who refuse to take part in gay marriages was rejected Thursday by a South Dakota legislative committee after opponents said the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom already gives those church leaders the protections.
The Judiciary Committee voted 4-3 to kill a bill that would have prevented clergy from being forced to perform marriages that violate their religious beliefs or consciences. It also sought to prevent clergy and other church officials from being sued or charged with crimes if they refused to take part in such weddings.
The bill's main sponsor, Sen. Ernie Otten, R-Tea, said the state's constitution and laws ban gay marriage, but courts may overturn that ban and force South Dakota churches to perform same-sex marriages.
The proposal would have required tolerance of clergy members who do not believe in same-sex marriage, Otten said.
"This bill does not force or impose an agenda on anyone," Otten said. "What the bill does, however, is protect South Dakota from anyone trying to impose his or her view on people by using legal or financial threats."
Karl Kroger, a United Methodist minister from Piedmont, said the proposal was unneeded because the federal and state constitutions already protect clergy members' rights to refuse to take part in same-sex weddings or other events that violate their religious beliefs.
"I'm here primarily to give one of the messages that was predominantly given to people by the angels, and that is: 'Do not be afraid,' " Kroger said.
But another sponsor of the bill, Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, said the U.S. Supreme Court could legalize gay marriage nationally, which might require churches to perform same-sex marriages.
"I'm saying keep the state out of my church," said Hickey, pastor of a Sioux Falls church.
Hickey said people can find other ministers who will perform same-sex marriages, but he believes in the Biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman because it's best for people and their children.
"I only promote and perform traditional marriages. It is not because I hate anyone. It is not because there's any bigotry. It's because I deeply care about people," Hickey said.
But Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, said the state and federal constitutions guarantee religious freedom, and that means clergy cannot be forced to perform any marriage. Hunhoff, who voted against the bill, said she saw the measure as a "political statement" that could have unintended consequences. For example, passage of the bill could prompt medical workers to seek a law allowing them to refuse to care for certain people, she said.
Sen. Craig Tieszen, R-Rapid City, said he also voted against the measure because he doesn't think it's necessary. A Supreme Court ruling approving gay marriage would trump any state law to the contrary, he said.