Spotlight On: Overly Broad Pastor Protection Acts

Pastor Protection Acts generally state that the government may not require clergy or houses of worship to perform marriages or host marriage ceremonies that would conflict with their faith. We believe that these bills are unnecessary because the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution already guarantees as much, and we don’t oppose them if the language is actually limited to that purpose.

Many states, however, are introducing Pastor Protection Acts that go further than protecting clergy or houses of worship from performing marriages that conflict with their faith. We are currently tracking more than a handful of bills like this, including legislation in Georgia, Florida, and Colorado.

As mentioned above, we have no objections to allowing members of the clergy, while acting as clergy, to refuse to perform a marriage they believe violates their religious beliefs. Nor do we object to bills that would allow houses of worship and similar religious entities to refuse to have marriages performed in their buildings.  The broad Pastor Protection Act, however, would exempt religious organizations from providing marriage related services to couples even if those organizations were providing public accommodations and were engaging in commercial activities. There are clear differences between a house of worship that hosts the weddings of its members and wants keep it that way and a religious organization that runs a commercial wedding hall that is open to the public as a business to make money.

It seems, therefore, that bills like these are specifically designed to stretch beyond just reinforcing the rights of clergy members, and instead, to create exemptions for a broad range of religious organizations or even organizations with just a connection to a religious organization (whatever that means) from existing public accommodations laws. This is exactly what Colorado HB 1123 would do. It would amend the state’s current public accommodations provisions so that for the purposes of solemnization of any marriage or providing goods and services related to the solemnization of any marriage, religious organizations are no longer considered to be a place of public accommodation. This bill is scheduled to be heard in a Colorado House committee this week.

There seems to be a similar motivation in Florida. Like the Colorado bill, Florida HB 43/SB 110, the Florida Pastor Protection Act, would allow religious organizations to ignore public accommodations laws. During a committee hearing last week on HB 43, a committee member offered an amendment that would have allowed an exemption only for religious organizations that do not fall within the state’s definition of a public accommodation. This amendment to narrow the bill and require religious organizations running commercial businesses to abide by the same public accommodations laws that other businesses must follow, was fiercely debated but was ultimately withdrawn. The original bill passed the committee. SB 110 is scheduled to be heard in a Senate committee this week.

Georgia’s Pastor Protection Act, was also the subject of a hearing last week. A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee (civil) discussed the concerns that their bill was too broad, and promised to try to resolve the issue before the bill is discussed in a full committee hearing. Whether they will be able to resolve their differences remains to be seen.

We will continue to keep an eye on these bills as well as the many other bills that would harm couples seeking to celebrate their fundamental right of marriage.