MONTGOMERY, Alabama — As Alabama wrestles over the issue of same-sex marriage, some lawmakers are seeking legal protections for judges, ministers and others who refuse to officiate at, or recognize, weddings that violate their religious beliefs.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 9-4 on Thursday to pass the bill, which is part of the House Republican caucus agenda for the session. Proponents said the bill is needed so people won't face lawsuits for refusing to go against their religious beliefs, while critics said it would legalize discrimination.
Republican Rep. Jim Hill said he has gotten phone calls from ministers and probate judges who are concerned they will be forced to marry gay couples at some point in the future.
"This bill has nothing to do with the couple. This bill strictly speaks to the rights of the individual asked to perform the ceremony," Hill said.
The bill states that no person is "required to solemnize a marriage for any person or persons." The legislation does not specifically mention same-sex weddings. It gives civil immunity to churches, ministers, society organizations and other religious-affiliated groups for refusal to recognize, or solemnize, a marriage.
"It enshrines discrimination," said Paul Hard, an opponent of the bill.
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.
The North Carolina Senate last month passed a bill that would let government officials opt out of duties related to same-sex marriages due to religious beliefs. The Georgia Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would forbid state government from infringing on a person's religious beliefs unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest.
Hard said judges now routinely marry all sorts of people even though the judge might not personally approve of their marriage.
"No one is suggesting that probate judges should change their religious views. ... They are public servants who are hired to do the job of public service. If marriage becomes the law in Alabama for same-sex couples, they are simply being asked to do their job," Hard said.
Hard is the plaintiff in one of several lawsuits challenging Alabama's ban on gay marriage.
Susan Watson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama said the Alabama bill was broadly written and could open the door to a broad range of discriminatory practices by organizations with religious affiliations.
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 this week at the direction of the Alabama Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on 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.
Birmingham Rep. Juandalyn Givan, D-Birmingham, said during the committee meeting that the fears of what could happen were being overblown by bill proponents.
"Has someone been threatened? Has someone been put in fear or apprehension in any kind of way to perform a marriage ceremony? Because I have not heard that," Givan said.