State laws help pastors decline gay weddings

Photo by David Roach
NASHVILLE (BP) -- Pastor Protection Acts adopted in multiple states and under consideration in others seek to protect the right of ministers not to perform same-sex weddings. But the bills have drawn mixed reviews from religious liberty proponents.

Three state legislators who have served as Southern Baptist ministers told Baptist Press that Pastor Protection Acts are helpful even though they should be supplemented by broader guarantees of religious liberty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage.

Roger Severino of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, told BP that Pastor Protection Acts "make doubly clear" that First Amendment guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion apply to clergy, yet the bills are "of limited value" because they tend to stop short of addressing "the real threat" -- discrimination against believers who stand for traditional marriage in government roles and private business dealings.

According to news reports, at least three states -- Texas, Oklahoma and Florida -- have adopted Pastor Protection Acts, with others considering similar legislation, including Tennessee, Georgia and Ohio. BP contacted four national organizations that support pro-family legislation, but none had information about the total number of states with Pastor Protection Acts.

Texas state Rep. Scott Sanford, an executive pastor at Cottonwood Creek Church in Allen, Texas, was the original author and House sponsor of the Lone Star State's Pastor Protection Act, which became law last year. He told BP he "would have liked to have gone broader" with additional religious liberty protections, "but it was a matter of ... what the House leadership would allow on the floor."

Still, Sanford said the bill has value and is "broader than the title suggests."

The bill "protects those services connected with a church or a ministry," Sanford said. "So, for instance, if a church had a wedding chapel service or a bakery service, it would be protected -- or a floral service or a photography service. But if they're stand-alone businesses, this bill does not address that."

Oklahoma state Sen. Dan Newberry, who has served on staff at multiple Southern Baptist churches, said his state's Ministers' Bill of Rights clarifies the application of the First Amendment to clergy. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law last spring. It states, "No regularly licensed, ordained or authorized official of any religious organization shall be required to solemnize or recognize any marriage that violates the official's conscience or religious beliefs."

Newberry said some interpret the First Amendment as referencing only "the right to pray and worship how you see fit" and not the right of "ministers to say no" to weddings.

"So in our bill in the state of Oklahoma, the Ministers' Bill of Rights, we attach your right to say no to the First Amendment," Newberry said.

In Tennessee, a bill is under consideration by legislators stating no minister or religious organization "shall be required to solemnize any marriage ... if the action would cause the individual or organization to violate a sincerely held religious belief." The office of the bill's House sponsor, Andy Holt, told BP the staff of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has requested a meeting and "expressed concern" over the bill.

Tennessee Rep. Jerry Sexton, who served as a Southern Baptist bivocational pastor for 25 years, told BP Pastor Protection Acts may be necessary in the wake of the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision.

"As a minister," Sexton said, "you can refuse to marry people of the opposite sex. Some ministers wouldn't marry you if you've been married before. So there's never been in the past any reprisal for refusing to do a marriage. But we're just in a new territory, uncharted waters. So we really don't know what to expect."

Ministers, Sexton said, "ought to be protected."

Severino, director of The Heritage Foundation's DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, applauded the efforts of states that have adopted Pastor Protection Acts, but he expressed concern the bills may serve as "a distraction from the more pressing fight."

"Pastor Protection Acts are motivated in reaction to an extreme decision" by the Supreme Court, Severino said. "But it is not enough to simply say religious freedom is protected so long as it's protected in the four walls of a church."

Same-sex marriage proponents "will often say, 'Well of course no one should force a pastor to perform a religious wedding against their religious beliefs,'" Severino said. That's why he urged legislatures to go beyond Pastor Protection Acts and protect the religious freedom of adoption agencies, schools and private business owners whose opposition to same-sex marriage could provoke discrimination.

"It would be best if legislatures passed Pastor Protection Acts, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts and First Amendment Defense Acts in combined religious freedom bills," Severino said. "... That approach would get the best of all sides so that no freedom is left behind."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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