While discussion of the fabled “Pastor Protection Act” has been long in the pipeline – Texas has already passed similar legislation from which Florida is cribbing its bill language – Florida Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, filed HB 43 on Aug. 10, laying down the proverbial gauntlet for the social conservative battle set to play out in next year’s legislative session. The bill, as expected, seeks to protect churches from litigation should they refuse to “solemnize” same-sex marriages.
Plakon is sticking to his guns on criticism of the bill as being “superfluous” and “unnecessary,” because, at least in his opinion, it’s a protection for all parties involved. There are so many unknowns in modern times, he says.
“With the trajectory of how public policy and the courts have moved on all this [marriage equality], it’s really impossible to predict what will happen next,” he says. “It’s kind of a backstop, if you will, to ensure that religious practitioners won’t ever have to deal with that decision.”
But Plakon is quick to admit that – even though he would like to call the bill “protective” and not “reactive” – this won’t be the only bill of its kind to cross the legislative transom early next year when the legislature convenes.
“The concern is, and you can see it show up with flower shops and bakeries, that there are people out there just waiting to tee up lawsuits,” he says, although HB 43 is limited specifically to religious organizations, most of which do not pay taxes.
“I suspect that there will be other bills for private businesses and adoption agencies and workplaces bills,” he adds. “This will be one of a handful of bills addressing the outcome of the Supreme Court case.”
In June, the Supreme Court decided in favor of marriage equality the nation over. That move catalyzed yet another wave of conservative-base engagement from Republicans, many of whom are at the ready with their talking points. The main complaint centers around a 2014 case in which Houston passed a human rights ordinance, one that was challenged by a ballot campaign.
Houston officials subpoenaed sermons from local churches, a move that set off accusations of religious persecution of those on the right. In fact, the subpoenas were intended to question the political motivations of tax-exempt churches waging a political battle. The subpoenas were dropped because of the controversy, and the city claimed that they hadn’t even issued them; pro-bono attorneys working for the ordinance had.
Proponents of the Texas act also claim to have gained bipartisan support in advance of its passage. Plakon says that hearts and minds were changed on the left and among gay-rights groups when they saw that their Pastor Protection Act would be something of an olive branch between churches and the gay community (also, “churches that marry gay couples exclusively” would be protected). However, there’s more to be read into statements like those from Dave Welch of Texas Pastor Council Action in which the war is clearly being waged.
“The reality is that we now live in a condition that we have to step out and be proactive in drawing some boundaries based on the aggression we’ve seen against the simple expression of our faith,” Welch told OneNewsNow in June.
Not everyone is buying the reasoning behind this bill and other similar bills that are being introduced across the country in other Republican legislatures. Though Plakon calls his bill a “shield, not a sword” – it’s being presented in the Senate as well by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville – opponents consider it to be more insidious than that. It is a means of picking a fight and a dangerous distraction; moreover, it’s a tactic meant to coddle the conservative base and raise money.
“Legally, it’s unnecessary,” local civil rights attorney Mary Meeks says. “No preacher can be forced to marry anyone, to begin with. Also, surely every gay person wants to ruin the best day of their life by being married by a bigot who doesn’t respect their union.”
“The whole purpose is to incite hate and cause harm to the community,” she adds. “It gets people fired up unnecessarily, and people do crazy things when they’re fired up. Then people get hurt.”