On June 11, Gov. Greg Abbott signed the so-called Pastor Protection Act that protects religious organizations and their employees from performing or participating in marriages that conflict with "sincerely held religious beliefs." The Christian Life Commission and its director of public policy, Kathryn Freeman, worked with faith leaders throughout Texas during the 2015 legislative session to get this bill passed.
The law will be added to Section 1, Chapter 2 of the Texas Family Code and will take effect Sept.1, 2015. The bill is timely because it comes ahead of a U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage later in June.
Although the law is commonly referred to as the Pastor Protection Act, its protections extend beyond clergy and ministers. The law applies to individuals employed by religious organizations while acting in the scope of their job. As worded, the law seems to indicate a church pianist, if he or she is an employee, could not be compelled to perform at a wedding in opposition to the church's or the individual's religious beliefs.
The Pastor Protection Act covers "religious organizations," not just churches. It also applies to entities "supervised or controlled by or in connection with a religious organization." Religious organizations are not defined, and future case law will determine how broadly this language will be applied.
The Pastor Protection Act offers legal protection for refusal to participate in the solemnization or formation of a marriage that violates a sincerely held religious belief. This protection extends beyond the wedding itself and applies to rehearsals, receptions, wedding showers, or anniversaries.
During oral argument of cases involving same-sex marriage pending before the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Roberts asked Solicitor General Verrilli about whether a religious school would be required to provide housing to a married same-sex couple. Verrilli replied, "that is going to depend on how the States work out the balance between their civil rights laws, … what kinds of accommodations they are going to allow under State law." The Pastor Protection Act makes it clear that in Texas, that balance will favor religious liberty.
Disclaimer: Until subsequent state and federal court opinions evaluate and apply the Pastor Protection Act and other pertinent laws to individual cases, the rights conveyed to organizations and individuals by the law cannot be known with certainty. Religious organizations and individuals should consult with an attorney regarding specific actions that may be covered by the act.