by Will Weissert
AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Senate voted overwhelmingly on Monday to allow clergy members to refuse performing marriages that violate their religious beliefs, as top Republicans move to further shield the nation’s largest conservative state from a possible U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing gay couples to wed.
The bill, approved 21-10, requires a final, largely procedural Senate vote before heading to the state House.
Democrats were quick to point out that existing constitutional guarantees separating church and state already allow houses of worship to set their own religious policies regarding marriage ceremonies and all other aspects of faith.
The measure raises some of the same issues as so-called “religious objections” proposals that sparked strong criticism nationally after being approved in Indiana and Arkansas this spring. Supporters say such measures protect religious freedoms from government intrusion, but advocacy groups argue they allow businesses to refuse service to or otherwise discriminate against gay people.
The proposal in Texas is less divisive than ones elsewhere, applying only to religious wedding ceremonies and largely restating existing law. Gay marriage has been banned in the state since voters approved a 2005 amendment to the Texas Constitution.
Still, the bill comes after the nation’s high court heard arguments about the constitutionality of gay marriage for couples nationwide, and a ruling allowing same-sex weddings by its justices would supersede the state constitutional prohibition.
“It is not my intention to discriminate against anyone with this bill,” Sen. Craig Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said during Monday’s short Senate floor debate. “My intention is to protect pastors, ministers and clergy First Amendment rights.”
Supporters of what Estes is proposing haven’t been shy about openly decrying gay marriage, with some pastors even traveling to the state Capitol last week to declare that it violates natural law and offends God.
A series of religious objections bills have been filed in the Texas Legislature, but those had stalled. That was until tea party-backed Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, allowed Estes to file his proposal weeks after the deadline and fast-tracked it through committee, setting up Monday’s preliminary approval vote in record time.
“Is it a problem today? Same-sex marriages are not allowed,” said Sen. John Whitmire, a veteran Houston Democrat. “Who forces a clergy to marry someone they don’t want to? It’s unheard of.”
Estes countered that pastors have received threatening phone calls for not agreeing to marry gay couples. He said he wants to ensure pastors can’t be sued for refusing to perform weddings they don’t believe in.
All of the Senate’s Republicans and one conservative Democrat, Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville, sided with Estes. The vote came a day before the House is scheduled to consider its own hot-button proposal that would prohibit state, county and local officials from issuing or enforcing same-sex marriage licenses, and prevent recognition of gay marriages performed in other states.