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Texas lawmakers attempt to revive religious objections bill

Texas lawmakers attempt to revive religious objections bill
Texas state capitol in Austin.
Texas state capitol in Austin.

Updated: 2:50 p.m. CDT

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas got a taste Monday of the religious objections issue that drew strong criticism elsewhere, with many church leaders imploring state lawmakers to protect religious freedoms in the name of tolerance but others taking the opportunity to openly decry gay marriage.

Top Republicans in the Texas Legislature have made a late attempt to revive a bill excusing clergy from presiding over marriages that violate their beliefs. The measure isn’t particularly divisive, even winning endorsements from civil liberty groups that say it largely restates existing law, and that they agree churches should be allowed to set their own religious policies.

But Sen. Craig Estes’ proposal follows arguments over gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as broader religious objections bills in Indiana and Arkansas that made national headlines after opponents said they would sanction discrimination against gay people.

“It’s a tricky situation here, but I just think that ministers must be able to follow the dictates of their conscience and their theological system that they belong to,” Estes, a Wichita Falls Republican, told a Senate committee hearing his bill Monday.

More than a dozen pastors and religious elders – many heading Southern Baptist congregations – lined up to support the bill before the committee, saying that they don’t condone bigotry but do believe clergy members shouldn’t be sued if they adhere to their religious beliefs and refuse to officiate certain weddings.

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Others, though, used the public forum to voice their concerns about gay marriage. David Joiner, pastor at Life Springs Christian Church in Liberty Hill, northwest of Austin, said same-sex couples being allowed to wed “offends God” and suggested it could be a stepping stone toward allowing pedophilia.

“It violates natural law,” Joiner said. “It validates and promotes the homosexual lifestyle. It turns a moral wrong into a civil right.”

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Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat, said he was concerned the proposal could allow churches to refuse biracial marriages.

“We justified, in this country, a lot of things based on religion – including we justified people of different races not being allowed to get married,” Ellis said.

Kris Segrest, lead pastor at the First Baptist Church in the Dallas suburb of Wylie, agreed that “there’s been a lot of really bad things done in the name of God.” But he also said Estes’ bill is limited enough to only allow church leaders to control their church’s religious policies, and won’t spill over into secular society.

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Several other religious objections proposals have stalled in the Texas Legislature. But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a tea party favorite who oversees the state Senate, assisted Estes with filing his bill weeks after the deadline and is helping fast-track it.

The measure potentially could become law before the end of the legislative session on June 1.

In February, a lesbian couple from Austin became the first same-sex couple to wed in Texas since voters passed a constitutional ban on gay marriage in 2005. But they were only allowed to do so because of a judge’s order that was issued for urgent medical reasons.

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