On Monday, the Texas Senate approved SB 2065, a bill that purports to shield religious organizations — and especially clergy — from having to perform “any marriage” that “violates a sincerely held religious belief.” A similar bill, HB 3567, is currently making its way through the Texas House of Representatives.
“We want to make sure they are not ever coerced into performing a marriage ceremony that would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs,” State Sen. Craig Estes (R), who sponsored the bill, told NPR.
The Senate bill does not specifically mention same-sex marriage, but is endorsed by conservative Texas clergy who tied it to ongoing debates over marriage equality. Rev. Dave Welch, President of Texas Pastor Council Action, said in a statement he believes the measure is meant to “protect Texas pastors who stand strong on the Biblical view of God’s design of male, female, marriage and family from being forced by threat of criminal or civil punishment by declining to ‘solemnize’ weddings that violate those convictions.” Welch also blasted Texas Democrats such as state Senator John Whitmire who spoke out against the bill, accusing pro-LGBT legislators of living in a “parallel universe” and listing government officials such as President Barack Obama who he said were “committed to using police powers to force acceptance of the LGBTQIA agenda.”
Welch’s questionable theology on marriage notwithstanding, opponents of the law note that there is a major problem with the legislation: it simply parrots laws already on the books, making it a ultimately useless.
“Who forces a clergy to marry someone they don’t want to? It’s unheard of,” Whitmire told the Associated Press.
Indeed, forcing a religious leader to perform a religious ceremony in a religious house of worship against their will would explicitly violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: namely, the clause guaranteeing the free exercise of religious expression. This same right is also already enshrined in Texas’ own state Constitution, which reads, “No human authority ought, in any case whatever, to control or interfere with the rights of conscience in matters of religion, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious society or mode of worship.” Furthermore, the right of clergy to refuse to officiate any marriage they please is well established, as evidenced by numerous examples of pastors and priests declining to oversee the weddings of couples who are interracial, disabled, divorced, or living together before marriage.
Meanwhile, several other anti-LGBT bills are simultaneously making their way through the legislature in advance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that many believe will make same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the country. Democrats are currently working to delay a vote on another bill in the Texas House, HB 4105, which aims to prohibit state officials from issuing same-sex-marriage licenses — a law which is also already on the books in Texas. But HB 3864, which supporters contend protects faith-based adoption agencies from having to close if they refuse to work with same-sex couples, could require LGBT kids to endure conversion therapy or attend a religious school that is not of their chosen faith tradition.