TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill that would allow churches to refuse to marry gay couples won its first approval Wednesday even though its sponsor said churches already have that right and he knows of no cases in which a church has been forced to perform a same-sex wedding ceremony.
After listening to dozens of pastors, most of whom supported the proposed law and some of who opposed it, the House Civil Justice Committee approved the bill on a 9-4 vote, with all Republicans supporting it and all Democrats opposed.
"We think it's a good idea to put this in law now because it's difficult to predict where this is all going," said Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who is sponsoring the bill along with Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs. "Some have said, 'Well, it's unnecessary.' I would hope that that's so, quite frankly, so there's no harm in putting in an extra layer of protection."
While the bill (HB 43) doesn't specifically mention gay marriage, it says that churches and clergy do not have to perform a wedding or allow a reception if it goes against sincerely held religious belief. But it was clear during questions, testimony and debate on the bill that it is a response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision giving gay couples the right to marry.
While pastors and lawmakers acknowledged the state and federal constitutions protect churches, some pastors expressed fear that a future legal decision could diminish that protection and praised the bill for giving them added protection.
Pastor Gerald Bustin of the Open Door Community Church in Summerfield said the bill is "extremely necessary" for pastors.
"We will die before we will give up our religious freedoms in the United States to any group or any organization regardless of who they are, whether they're government or whether they're an LGBT organization or whoever because we will stand for God and what we believe God has told us to stand for," he said.
Pastor Harold Thompson of Miami Beach Community Church said the bill creates a division.
"Search your heart. Look at the true intent of this bill. It is not to protect pastors, it is not to protect the church, it is to protect an agenda. It is nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing, intending to deceive, intending to harm," he said.
Democratic Rep. Lori Berman of Lantana said the bill was pandering to fear.
"This is legislation looking for a problem that doesn't exist," she said. "This bill is not just an added layer of security, it's a clear message of disapproval of same-sex marriage."
The bill has one more committee stop before it can be considered by the full House. A Senate bill (SB 110) sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz has yet to be heard.