The House tentatively approved Thursday a bill saying that Texas pastors, churches and religious institutions can’t be sued by private parties or penalized by government for spurning gay weddings.
Many clergy, especially Southern Baptist ministers opposed to gay marriage, have testified they very much need the legal shield.
“Maybe pastors won’t be sued. But we need some protection in case they are,” said Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, bill supporter.
The bill’s critics, though, have expressed skepticism that same-sex couples would try to coerce a reluctant religious leader to officiate at their unions. Even if some did, the U.S. Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 already protect pastors, opponents have said.
Rep. Celia Israel, an Austin Democrat and out lesbian, said she hopes the U.S. Supreme Court soon will declare a constitutional right to marry.
If it does, though, Israel said she and her partner of 20 years would never ask to be married by a pastor who interprets the Bible as against loving, same-sex unions.
“Rest assured [we] will not be going to them to bless our union,” she said. “We will be going to someone who loves us and respects us for who we are and how we take care of one another.”
Estes’ bill would confer legal immunity on clergy and religious institutions if they refused to open facilities, provide services and sell goods to same-sex couples because it would violate “a sincerely held religious belief” to do so.
Rep. Scott Sanford, a McKinney Republican who is a Baptist pastor, filed a companion bill that died in last week’s bill-killing maelstrom before a key House deadline. Sanford also sponsored the Senate-passed version.
Following Sanford’s example, Estes agreed to one change. He deleted a phrase saying clergy and religious institutions could refuse to treat a same-sex marriage “as valid for any purpose.” Bill opponents warned those words could shield, say, a religious hospital from challenge if it barred a spouse legally married to someone of the same sex in another state from making medical decisions for a partner.
“I truly believe that there is space for LGBT justice and religious freedom and this, I feel, is the space for that,” said state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, who has called herself the only openly pan-sexual elected official in the nation.
State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a speech supporting the bill that she will one day marry her longtime lesbian partner in Texas. Pastors that don’t support their union shouldn’t worry about her trying to get them to conduct the ceremony, she said. SB 2065, Israel argued, would ensure that a clergy member that wants to support the ceremony can.
“This Roman Catholic urges you to vote yes,” Israel said.
Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Equality Texas withdrew its opposition to the measure and encouraged House Democrats to vote for it.
So there you have it. I don’t know that I’d agree that this bill was worth supporting, but I do agree that it’s likely to not have much effect, something even its most ardent supporters concede. Gotta say, though, when the phrase “sincerely held religious belief” is invoked, the possibility exists for all kinds of unintended consequences to arise. Be careful what you ask for, pastors. Hair Balls has more.