Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Does Ga. need 'pastor protection law'? Yes, it probably does

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston told fellow members of the House Republican Caucus this weekend that he will push passage of a so-called "Pastor Protection Law" that would write into law an explicit guarantee that members of the clergy cannot be forced to perform gay marriages against their will.

According to a Ralston spokesman, the bill would state:

“No minister of the gospel or cleric or religious practitioner ordained or authorized to solemnize marriages according to the usages of the denomination, when acting in his or her official religious capacity, shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of his or her right to free exercise of religion.”

Personally, I think it's a wonderful idea.

True, it is also a meaningless bit of pandering that will have no real effect, but never underestimate the value of political theater.  If a new state law gives Georgia religious leaders the public reassurance that they seek that they won't be forced to marry Adam and Steve or Mary and Sherri, and if Georgia political leaders feel the need to tamp down the panic over gay marriage in some quarters by giving clergy that reassurance, then by all means pass the bill.

Certainly, Georgia won't be alone. Texas passed similar "pastor protection" legislation just last month, and GOP legislators in Tennessee are so excited about the concept that they are talking about calling a special session to pass their own version. By September, I suspect, such bills will be popping up all over the country, including Congress, because there's nothing that politicians like better than heroically fending off a nonexistent threat.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott offers a great example of such posturing. “Pastors now have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights," he said in signing his state's version of the bill, as if that freedom had in any way been at risk prior to affixing his signature.

It's important to note that the Texas bill passed with relatively little controversy. The vote in the Texas House, for example, was 141-2, and the only two openly gay Texas legislators voted in favor of the bill.  Equality Texas, which advocates for the gay and lesbian community, also endorsed the bill's final passage.

Why the lack of opposition? Because no one has any intent to force churches or ministers to act contrary to their faith; even if somebody harbored such silly intentions, there are no possible legal means for doing so. The Constitution and centuries of court precedent make it clear that government has no right to intrude on matters that are so clearly within the purview of a church.

Those who tell you otherwise are either trying to take advantage of your presumed ignorance or are themselves ignorant of the facts. Even the highly conservative Family Research Council, which strongly opposes gay marriage, acknowledges that "Churches and ministers have solid protection under the First Amendment. At time of publication, there is no appreciable risk that clergy would be compelled by a court to host or perform a same-sex ceremony."

And while Speaker Ralston is more than lawyer enough to know that, he also understands the value of allowing his members to restate the obvious.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.