Recently, the state House of Representatives passed House Bill 597, also known as the “Pastor Protection Act.”
As a Louisiana pastor, you might think I would be excited about this bill, but I am not. While I agree with the basic philosophy of the bill — which states that pastors who refuse to participate in same-sex marriages cannot face punitive damage — I do find the bill somewhat redundant in protecting what should already be protected under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The fact is that anytime a governing agency interferes with a wedding ceremony, it is violating the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When the government states who can and cannot be married, then they are infringing on “the free exercise thereof.” And rather than pass yet another law that will systematically be ignored, the state should instead get out of the marriage business altogether, since it does not belong there anyway.
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?
Those who are married by me is my own business, and I need not provide the government with any reason whatsoever. Such a decision is between me and God; or me and the couple; or me and my church. At no point should the state butt into these religious matters. And to many Christians like me, this is a religious (not a government) matter. The solution, of course, is for government to get out of the marriage business and leave such decisions to pastors and the churches to which they and the couple belong. The state doesn’t tell us who we can or cannot baptize or give communion to. Why should they tell us who we can and cannot marry?
The fact is, marriage licenses are a relatively new phenomenon. They were not common in America until the late 1800s when they were introduced so the government could prohibit interracial marriage. Yes, that same benevolent government that now wants to enshrine laws forcing certain types of marriages also has sought in the past to forbid the very same type of marriages. Even most Christians are surprised to learn that the Bible does not require you to get a state license to get married; and that Joseph and Mary did not need approval from the Nazareth Courthouse before they tied the knot. Marriage was considered a private, religious entity. It still should be.
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. We have the right to view marriage however we wish. And others have the right to disagree and go to church elsewhere. But the government does not have the right to step in and dictate what kind of couple a pastor can marry.
My fear is that the so-called “Pastor Protection Act” could easily end up being the “Pastor Incarceration Act” before it’s all said and done.
The Rev. Shane Kastler is pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lake Charles.