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Pastor Protection Act Gets Governor’s Approval

white church in front of blue sky
John Spooner via Flickr

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has signed a controversial bill dubbed the Pastor Protection Act. The measure would protect pastors and churches from lawsuits if they decline to participate in marriages that violate their beliefs.

Pastor Brant Copeland serves at the First Presbyterian church in Tallahassee. And he’s been one of the staunchest opponents of the conscientious objection measure.

“Well, the Pastor Protection Act, so called, is mislabeled as well. In my opinion, I don’t need protection. I have the bill of rights which protects me quite thoroughly. Thank you very much,” Copeland says.

While some religious leaders have spoken in favor of the act, Copeland calls the legislation “patronizing.” He says he already has the right to decline to perform a marriage. And has done so. He tells the story of one specific couple who asked him to perform a marriage.

“I thought that couple was, they just needed to mature a bit more. And with reluctance I said, “I really can’t do that service.’ And a couple of days later my phone rang in the middle of the night and it turned out somebody had put an ad in the Thrifty Nickel saying they had pure bred puppies for sale, but be sure and call after midnight. I sort of suspect I was right about that particular couple and their immaturity because my guess it they may have placed that ad,” Copeland says.

But Copeland says in the 30 years he’s been the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, he’s never been sued for declining to perform a marriage ceremony. He says the thing that upsets him most about the pastor protection act, is the reason he thinks lawmakers brought it forward.

The more disturbing thing about this bill is it presumes that people of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community are somehow a threat to people of faith and I think that’s a pretty ugly thing to say about LGBT people and that’s the reason I oppose the bill,” Copeland says.

And lawmakers haven’t been too shy about that. Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) is one of the bill’s sponsors.

“On Friday June 26th 2015 the United States Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to same sex marriage. However, it did not address whether churches, religious organizations, related groups or certain individuals may be forced or required to perform any marriage or provide services, accommodations, facilities, goods or privileges for the related purpose if some action would violate a sincerely held religious belief," Bean says.

Longwood Rep. Scott Plakon (R-Longwood), who sponsored the bill in the House, says he started working on the legislation before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same sex marriage across the country. But he admits that ruling does cause him concern.

And members of the LGBT, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, community say they find that offensive. But not only that, they worried that legislation could create a slippery slope.Carlos Guillermo Smith is the government affairs manager for the LGBT advocacy group Equality Florida.

“There was a lot of really vague language in there about the types of faith based organizations that were included under the bill,” Guillermo Smith says.

Guillermo Smith says lawmakers eventually passed an amendment clearing some of the vague language up and his group, which advocates on behalf of LGBT people, removed its opposition. But he says that doesn’t mean Equality Florida supports the legislation.

“So while we’ve always said the bill is still unnecessary, it still is. We’ve always said the bill is a bit insulting to the LGBT community, it still is. The amendments that have some forward at least clarify the extent to which the bill goes on the number of entities that are included and it clarifies our questions so that we now know the bill doesn’t conflict with the Florida civil rights act. The law hasn’t changed. And LGBT families aren’t hurt by the passage of the law,” Guillermo Smith says.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the measure into law Thursday. It goes into effect July first.

Follow @Regan_McCarthy

Regan McCarthy is the Assistant News Director for WFSU Public Media. Before coming to Tallahassee, Regan graduated with honors from Indiana University’s Ernie Pyle School of Journalism. She worked for several years for NPR member station WFIU in Bloomington, Ind., where she covered local and state government and produced feature and community stories.

Phone: (850) 645-6090 | rmccarthy@fsu.edu

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