Lawmakers okay religious protections, delay LGBT rights vote

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By Michael Auslen

TALLAHASSEE — Religious liberty and LGBT rights clashed Tuesday in the Florida Senate as lawmakers gave the first nod of approval to allowing religious groups to deny weddings to same-sex couples but put off a vote on anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

In the first hearing for the Pastor Protection Act (SB 110), the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation by a 7-3 vote after an hour of debate. The bill would protect clergy and churches from prosecution and lawsuits if they turn away gay couples who want to marry.

It’s a concern for pastors who fear they could be sued, said bill sponsor Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. That was the issue raised by dozens of clergy and religious activists who came to Tallahassee to argue for the bill.

“This is not about individual choice, it’s about divine design that we are forced to reinforce,” said Gilberto Rodriguez, senior pastor of Templo Elias in Lutz.

Opponents argued the Pastor Protection Act is redundant because of the U.S. Constitution’s protection of religious rights. They worry that the bill could be the first step in eroding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

LGBT rights activists are hoping a different bill will gain traction in the Legislature. Many came to Tallahassee for the first hearing of the Competitive Workforce Act (SB 120), which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s existing civil rights laws.

Lawmakers did not vote on the bill before the Judiciary Committee’s meeting was required to end. And attempts by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, to force a vote were rejected by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.

But Chairman Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, promised the Competitive Workforce Act will get a full hearing at the panel’s next meeting.

Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said he trusts Diaz de la Portilla to put the bill up for a vote later in the legislative session.

“It truly is the most important bill for civil rights that will be taken up in the past 40 years,” Abruzzo, the bill sponsor, said.

Still, a House committee has not yet agreed to hear the anti-discrimination measure, although the Pastor Protection Act will be considered in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.