Passage of the only surviving religious liberty bill in the 84th session of the Texas Legislature gives pastors some legal protection against litigation should they refuse to preside over a same-sex marriage. Senate Bill 2065, the Pastor Protection bill, passed overwhelmingly May 21.
With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to rule by the end of June on whether states must recognize same-sex marriage as a constitutionally protected right, conservative Texas legislators filed bills that would, if passed, provide legal standing for citizens, businesses and clergy against an anticipated wave of legal action. But the lack of support from state leadership and the legislators’ self-imposed censorship in the wake of protests at Indiana’s capitol in April left stymied all other legislation that would have given a legal defense for those opposed, on religious grounds, to same-sex marriage.
The lone religious liberty bill to be debated, SB 2065, passed the House of Representatives 141-2 on its second reading, garnering even the support of two gay representatives. The next day it passed unanimously, 142-0, earning the votes of its two earlier opponents. On May 25 it was sent to Gov. Greg Abbott who has said he would sign it.
The bill ensures clergy and churches cannot be compelled by the government to solemnize or facilitate a wedding that is in conflict with their deeply held religious convictions. The law also provides legal standing for them if sued for refusing to perform a wedding.
Although pleased with the passage of SB 2065, Cindy Asmussen, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention ethics and religious liberty advisor, said the lone bill does not provide legal cover for the multitude of scenarios legislators were trying to account for. The state’s Religious Freedom Reformation Act (RFRA) statute gives a broad foundation upon which Texans can stand when defending their religious convictions but it does not provide the specific defense needed for a variety of situations, Asmussen and others argued. A statute, unlike an amendment, can be repealed by any subsequent legislature.
“It’s enough for the pastors and the clergy, but we want to protect all Texans,” said Rep. Matt Krause.
Asmussen, who spent weeks petitioning legislators to give serious consideration to religious liberty bills and the issues they seek to proactively address, lamented that legislators did not share her sense of urgency.
During the second reading of the bill May 21, questions on the House floor to Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, sponsor of the Pastor Protection bill, reflected some misunderstandings of the problems SB 2065 seeks to forestall.
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburgh, repeatedly asked Sanford if any clergy, to date, had been forced, against their religious convictions, to marry anyone or if they had been prosecuted for failure to do so. His questions indicated he saw no immediate threat to clergy. Canales, along with Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, voted against the bill May 21.
“Rep. Canales, I would certainly say there are repercussions that pastors are experiencing today,” said Sanford, a pastor at Cotton Creek Baptist Church. “Pastors came in droves to the capitol to testify for this bill because they sense a need for it.”
Even with the Texas marriage law and the RFRA statute in force, pastors told Sanford they are being intimidated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists. Some pastors have been asked to perform same-sex marriages. He reminded the House of the subpoenaing of five Houston pastors for their opposition to a city ordinance giving civil liberty protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Pastor Protection bill received the support of two gay lawmakers and other supporters of same-sex marriage, but their support was not without affirmation of same-sex marriage and nuanced statements aimed at their ideological and political opponents.
“The unstated here is the LGBT community and, let me reassure those pastors out there, that some fine day my partner and I are going to be able to get married in the great state of Texas. The Supreme Court will hopefully take care of that issue for us. When that day comes, rest assured to those pastors and preachers who will take a more literal interpretation of the Bible that my partner and I of 20 years will not be going to them to bless our union,” said Cecelia Israel, D-Austin, one of two gay lawmakers to support the bill.
Israel said she supported the bill as a reiteration of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “which is a respect for religion,” not because of the legal cover its authors believe is needed in a post-marriage culture.
Rep. Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo, said society, in time would come around to accept same-sex marriage. When two “children of God” love each other they should have the right to marry, he concluded.
There was applause from the House gallery as representatives cast their votes in favor of the bill.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN at texanonline.net, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)