Did Pastor Protection Act Get LGBT Support In Other States?

Oct 19, 2015

Credit Robert Cheaib Via Flickr / WFSU News

Lawmakers in Florida are holding up a California law, pushed by that state’s LGBT community, as evidence their Florida Pastor Protection Act is friendly. But West Coast officials are pointing out subtle differences.

The so called Pastor Protection Act is meant to protect churches and clergy from lawsuits, or losing their tax exempt status if they decline to perform a marriage for religious reasons.  Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood) is behind the measure.

“Well in light of the recent Supreme Court Decision and as quickly as culture and law is changing we thought it would be a good idea to put this in Florida statutes,” Plakon says.

Florida’s LGBT or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, community has raised concerns about the measure. But Plakon says he’s not sure why.

“Well, I’m a little surprised by that here in Florida, because in Texas, the group equality Texas dropped their opposition to the bill there. And in California there was an openly gay member of the Senate who passed similar legislation a few years back actually," Plakon says.

Plakon is talking about California Senator Mark Leno. Leno says he questions lawmakers holding up his legislation as an example.

“They’re either misinformed or they’re disingenuous. They can choose,” Leno says. 

Leno represents San Francisco. His life partner died from complications relating to HIV/AIDS. He is openly gay. And yes, he authored a bill that would protect churches and faith leaders from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages. But Leno says there are significant differences between Florida’s bill and California’s law. For example, he says California's law added the word civil before any reference to marriage in the state's family code. Leno says the idea was to codify in law that marriage is a civil, not a religious contact. Plakon calls that a small difference.

“The fact that he says the word “civil” in the bill. I’m not seeing where that makes any difference in substance than what we’re doing in Florida. Because in Florida it is a civil ceremony as it sits as well as in most cases religious. So I think that that distinction, I would not agree that there’s a difference there,” Plakon says.

If Plakon’s argument sounds familiar, maybe that’s because it’s similar to the argument members of the LGBT community are using against his bill. While Plakon argues it’s not necessary to codify in law that marriages are civil, because that’s already part of the family code, LGBT activists argue that it’s not necessary to codify that pastors and churches are protected because it’s part of the First Amendment.

Leno says the inclusion of the word civil created significant Republican opposition, even causing California’s Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to veto the measure. Plus, Leno says there’s the issue of timing.  Leno points out the legislation passed in 2012. He says that’s before the Supreme Court legally recognized same-sex marriage across the country. And while California was in the middle of a fight over a ballot measure called Proposition Eight, which would have  banned same sex marriage in the state.

“My motivation, again, came from the truth being abused by opponents of equal marriage rights, going on television and claiming that unless voters pass Prop-8, current law would force clergy to perform marriages antithetical to their faith. It angered me and I thought how do we deal with that,” Leno says.

So Leno says he authored the bill, which does have similarities to Florida’s bill. And it eventually it passed with the support of the LGBT lobbying group Equality California. But would Equality support that legislation if it were up for discussion now? The group’s representative says no.

But Plakon says California’s law isn’t the only similar legislation that’s gotten LGBT support. He says Mary Gonzalez, an openly pansexual Texas Representative spoke in favor of a similar bill when her state’s Republican legislature considered it. Plakon read her comments during his presentation of the Florida measure.

This is what she said on the House [floor] and I would concur with these comments. ‘Someone asked me, that if I voted for the bill, would that mean I’m allowing discrimination? And I said no, in fact I’m fighting discrimination. The biggest argument I have with people when we’re trying to promote LGBT justice is that we’re trying to infringe on religious beliefs. That is not the goal. I truly believe there is room for LGBT justice and religious freedom, and this, referring to this bill, is the space for that,'” Plakon read.

The Texas measure initially faced opposition from Democrats and the LGBT community. But eventually garnered bi-partisan support, with some members commenting the measure could help to protect faith leaders who want to conduct same-sex marriages. The Texas measure also passed before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling extending marriage rights to same sex couples across the country.