States map 2015 for blog

Written by Don Byrd

A so-called “Pastor Protection Act,” which passed the Louisiana House earlier this year, was defeated in committee in the state’s Senate. Like other legislation with the same name, Louisiana’s HB 597 purported to shield clergy and houses of worship from nondiscrimination laws for refusing to perform or host wedding ceremonies that conflict with their religious beliefs. As many others have explained, the right to refuse to perform or host weddings is well-protected already by the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom (see a fantastic column on this issue from the BJC’s Jennifer Hawks here).

Louisiana’s “Pastor Protection Act” was troublesome not just for its redundant protections, however, but also because of additional language that could have created some unintended havoc. For example, an amendment to the original bill clarified that the bill does not apply to “the heterosexual marriage of a biracial couple.”

In an op-ed earlier this month, Rev. Shane Kastler, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles, explained his opposition to the bill: 

As a pastor, it should be my prerogative, both to marry or refuse any couple I wish. And this right extends to any couple for any reason.

While I am a pastor, I am also a free American who shouldn’t be forced to participate in any ceremony against my will. An amendment to HB 597 places an exclusion on biracial, heterosexual couples. So does this mean I am required by law to perform all such marriages? What if it’s a marriage between a black Muslim and a white Christian and I refuse to do the marriage because of their differing religions? Would I be sued and smeared as a racist? Would I be fined or imprisoned?

The amendments to HB 597 open up a potential Pandora’s Box where government might eventually provide a litany of situations in which they will force pastors to participate in. Personally, I would gladly marry an interracial couple, provided they meet the biblical qualifications for marriage. And I would refuse to marry a “same race” couple if they didn’t meet the biblical qualifications, as I interpret them.

The point is, those biblical qualifications, or even my own personal views on marriage, are none of the state’s business.

The purpose of these bills, clearly, is not to force pastors to marry interracial couples but to respond to the religious objections many have regarding the marriage of same-sex couples. As Jennifer’s column states, “When carefully crafted, ‘pastor protection acts’ non-controversially provide explicit reassurances that clergy and houses of worship can make theological decisions when it comes to wedding participation. . . . If, however, the slogan of ‘pastor protection’ is used as cover to exempt a wide range of entities from various interactions with the LGBT community, pastors and their supporters should ask if the legislation’s goal is to protect pastors or condemn their LGBT neighbors.”