Faith leaders contradict claims of religious discrimination
They say a so-called pastor protection bill is both unnecessary and divisive
Oct. 7, 2015
TALLAHASSEE -- Testimony before a legislative committee Wednesday showed that a religious freedom bill, H.B. 43, is not as innocent as its sponsors claim.
Pastors and other ministers from across the state told members of the House Civil Justice Committee that the bill is not only unnecessary -- but also a divisive attack on LGBT families.
Freedom of religion is important, these faith leaders said. It is deeply ingrained in American culture as well as in the U.S. Constitution. No religious community will ever be told what it must believe --- or which couples it may or may not marry.
Instead, they called the so-called Pastor Protection Act an ugly show of animosity toward same-sex couples and their families -- under the false guise of claiming that churches are somehow under attack.
"Look at the true intent of this bill,” the Rev. Harold E. Thompson of Miami Beach told legislators. “It is not to protect pastors. It is not to protect the church. It is to protect an agenda. It is nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing, intended to deceive, intended to harm."
"We've already established how frivolous [the bill] is. Therefore I can only believe it serves to foster the myth that members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities pose some sort of threat to people of strong religious faith,” said Pastor Paul Gibson of St. Petersburg. “The bill will create fear and confusion in the public and perpetuate the lie that religious freedom and basic human rights are in conflict with one another.”
Other speakers warned that the bill could become a vehicle for other religious exemptions meant to undermine civil rights laws.
Such exemptions have been attempted before. Last spring, legislators tried to make it possible for taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to discriminate against any child or family, so long as the discrimination was based on "deeply held moral principles."
A more sweeping religious exemption law in Indiana was so roundly criticized across the country that state officials had to quickly repeal it.
And in Texas, a similarly broad proposal was whittled down by opponents until only the redundant protection of pastoral discretion remained. LGBT advocates did not support the provision, but they settled for it.
"Our top concern is...that this bill is a Trojan Horse, which can be a vehicle that will bring even more anti-LGBT legislation to our state,” said Equality Florida’s Carlos Guillermo Smith. He and two members of the committee, Democrats Kionne McGhee and Cynthia Stafford, said it could easily be amended or interpreted to give religious exemptions to ministers operating in public office or commercial enterprises.
“Then you could call it the Kim Davis Empowerment Act,” said Smith.
Today’s party-line committee vote was the first hurdle for H.B. 43. It faces at least one more committee vote before reaching the full House. An identical bill has been proposed in the Senate.