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Bill Raises Questions About First Amendment’s Religious Protections

gold wedding bands
Abhlshek Jacob

If a pastor declines to conduct a couple’s wedding ceremony due to religious beliefs, is the pastor protected? One Florida lawmaker says while the First Amendment offers freedom of religion, it doesn’t hurt to codify that.

Public policy and public opinion are changing fast when it comes to same sex marriage, says Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood). And that’s one reason he gives for filing a measure that would protect churches and clergy from lawsuits if they refuse to participate in weddings for religious reasons.

“There’s been numerous lawsuits in other subject areas regarding these types of issues, regarding same sex marriage in different context than this. But this in particular in how it relates to marriage, we think it’s a good idea to put this in law because it’s difficult to predict where this is all going,” Plakon says.

Plakon calls the measure an extra layer of protection and it’s one some faith leaders welcome.  Greg Squires is the pastor at Freedom Life Church in Kissimmee.

“And with my religious beliefs and how I see marriage and the different threats that we’ve seen even as we go into secular with the bakers and the florists, and the lawsuits we never thought would come because someone has a religious view. Why couldn’t it come to us? Even though we say that it’s in our constitution and it’s in the amendment, well that just depends on the person who is ruling in the moment and how they see it,” Squires says.

Some church leaders expressed concerns that even while the First Amendment might protect them in the end, it wouldn’t stop a person from filing a lawsuit. And they’re worried about how much it would cost their church to hire a lawyer or cover other court costs. Meanwhile, other faith leaders spoke against the bill, like Brant Copeland who is pastor at Tallahassee’s First Presbyterian church.

“I’m really concerned about the inferred and now overt premise of this bill and that seems to be that LGBT people, or people who would seek same sex marriage are somehow a threat to other people of faith and I find that premise very disturbing and inaccurate in my experience,” Copeland says.

Copeland says he doesn’t see the need for the bill even though he says on rare occasion he has declined to perform marriages.

“Years ago a young couple came to me and after much soul searching, I declined to perform the service. The groom was very upset and I was not sued, however, a couple of nights later we got a phone call at two-in-the-morning. And they said ‘we saw your ad for free puppies in the free ad section and it said to call after 2 a.m.’ I think that had something to do with that couple.”

Copeland says he feels he has enough protection under the U.S. Constitution and opposes Plakon’s bill. But after a lengthy discussion Wednesday the measure passed its first committee 3-to-8, along party lines.