House to Vote on ‘Pastor Protection Act’ Backed by Anti-LGBT Groups

Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, addresses a group of pastors on the Capitol steps in April.
John Wright
Dave Welch, executive director of the Texas Pastor Council, addresses a group of pastors on the Capitol steps in April.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia) said Wednesday he doesn’t plan to introduce an anti-gay marriage amendment to the so-called Pastor Protection Act scheduled for a House vote Thursday.

However, with 12 days remaining in the session, Bell said he continues to look for another means of resurrecting House Bill 4105, which was designed to undermine a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, and died on the House floor last week.

LGBT advocates feared Bell would attempt to add the provisions of HB 4105 to Senate Bill 2065, by Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls), which would reaffirm that pastors and churches can’t be forced to participate in same-sex weddings. But Bell said he doesn’t believe such an amendment would be considered germane to SB 2065, aka the Pastor Protection Act, thus threatening the bill’s chances.

“A lot of work’s been done on that bill, and I don’t want to compromise that bill,” Bell told the Observer. “The intent is to assert the sovereignty of the state of Texas. If I can find a place to do that, then I’ll do that. But I’m not going to compromise the very structure and value system that I’m trying to affirm in that process.”

In addition to warning of a possible amendment from Bell, LGBT advocates say the Pastor Protection Act is unnecessary because clergy and churches are already protected from being forced to participate in same-sex weddings under the state and federal constitutions as well as Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They also say no same-sex couple has tried to force an unwilling clergy member to officiate their wedding.

Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas have said they’d support SB 2065 if it is amended to emphasize that it would apply only to clergy members who are acting in a religious capacity. Estes has declined to add such language to the bill.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, said his fear is that pastors acting in a secular role, such as county clerks and justices of the peace, could use the bill as a basis for denying licenses to same-sex couples or refusing to marry them.

“We’ve talked to a number of legal experts who think they’ll fail if they try that, but it does raise the question of, ‘Will that be another way to delay constitutionally protected rights for gay and lesbian couples who want to get married?'” Quinn said. “The concern is not so much that it’s a horrible bill, but that it will be misused by people to do bad things.”

With other anti-LGBT legislation stalled, social conservatives have made SB 2065 a top priority in recent days. However, Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch acknowledged recently that its passage wouldn’t be a significant victory.

Supporters of SB 2065 have used committee hearings on the bill to give general testimony in opposition to same-sex marriage, which some witnesses compared to bestiality and pedophilia.

“It suggests that really the goal here to increase hostility and animosity toward gay and lesbian couples who want to get married, rather than to protect pastors from having to perform their marriages, because pastors are already protected from doing that if they don’t want to,” Quinn said.

Nevertheless, if SB 2065 is the only unfavorable measure that passes out of more than 20 anti-LGBT proposals that were introduced, advocates won’t hang their heads.

“It’s certainly encouraging that some of the really bad bills appear to be going nowhere, and that the only bill that’s moving forward does essentially what the law already does,” Quinn said. “If we can get out of the session without any of those other bills passing, it would clearly be a big step forward.”

The Pastor Protection Act has already cleared the Senate, and Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign it.

John Wright is a freelance journalist based in Austin. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Published at 6:24 pm CST