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Ala. House approves bill allowing judges, ministers to refuse to marry gay couples

Ala. House approves bill allowing judges, ministers to refuse to marry gay couples
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama House on Thursday approved legislation saying no one can require a judge, minister or church to perform a wedding they don’t want to perform, a measure widely seen as targeting same-sex marriages.

alabama-flagThe bill passed, 69-25, after four hours of sometimes heated debate. Supporters depicted it as an issue of religious liberty, while opponents called it blatant political pandering on the issue of same-sex marriage.

“No minister or judge should be compelled to marry anyone that they don’t want to,” bill sponsor Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, said. Hill, a former judge, said he introduced the bill after getting calls from ministers and judges who were concerned they would be forced to perform weddings.

The bill does not specifically mention same-sex marriage, but states that no person is “required to solemnize a marriage for any person or persons.”

Lawmakers opposing the bill stayed at the House microphones for much of Thursday morning.

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“Nothing in this bill is going to change anything. It’s just pandering,” said Rep. Patricia Todd, Alabama’s only openly gay lawmaker. “Let’s deal with the real issues facing Alabama. This isn’t one of them,” she said.

Hill conceded that he knew of no judges or ministers who have ever been forced to perform a wedding. He said he brought the legislation to clarify the law.

The bill also gives civil immunity to churches, ministers, society and other religious-affiliated organization if they refuse to host or recognize a wedding.

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Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, argued that language could lead to a broad range of discriminatory practices, because it would allow religious-affiliated organizations to decide not to recognize some marriages.

The bill titled the “Freedom of Religion in Marriage Protection Act,” is part of the House Republican Caucus agenda for the 2015 session.

Alabama is the latest state to take up “religious liberty” bills regarding weddings and marriage in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court settling the question of whether the U.S. Constitution gives gay couples nationwide a fundamental right to marry.

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Gay couples began marrying in some, but not all, Alabama counties on Feb. 9 after a federal judge ruled the state’s gay marriage ban was unconstitutional and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to put the decision on hold. Many probate judges at the time stopped performing wedding ceremonies for anyone, gay or straight, so they would not have to marry gay couples.

The same-sex weddings came to a halt last week at the direction of the Alabama Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 over whether gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to marry everywhere in the country or if states can ban such unions. A ruling is expected in June.

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