Bill would protect clergy who refuse marriages

Of the 34 bills prefiled by Alaska lawmakers on Friday, none have been more controversial than Senate Bill 120 and House Bill 236.

The bills, proposed by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna; and Rep. David Talerico, R-Healy, respectively, were written in an attempt to shield clergy from the effects of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide last summer.

On Monday, Micciche spoke plainly: “This is not a Kim Davis bill.”

Davis is a county clerk in Kentucky who garnered national attention — and jail time — for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a court order and instructions from Kentucky’s governor.

Senate Bill 120 states in part that “a person permitted to solemnize a marriage … is not subject to criminal or civil liability for refusing to solemnize a marriage.”

In the days immediately following the release of SB 120, Micciche was lambasted on social media and traditional media for “intolerance,” among other, unkinder words.

After a bruising legal fight to legalize same-sex marriage, he said he can comprehend why same-sex marriage advocates might be tender about the topic, but it isn’t his intention to restrict it.

“I’m not sure people understand,” he said. “In my mind and in my heart, there is nothing remotely anti-gay … in this legislation.”

While SB 120 legally protects those who refuse to conduct marriages or marriage celebrations, it contains clauses that indicate that protection only covers ministers, priests, rabbis and other religious authorities.

Alaska law allows any person to become a “marriage commissioner” for a day and conduct a wedding. Those commissioners and the state’s judicial officers — who also may conduct legally binding weddings — are not protected if they refuse to conduct a wedding.

Furthermore, neither Micciche’s bill nor Talerico’s companion legislation in the House would permit anyone to refuse to issue a marriage license, as Davis did last year.

“It doesn’t outlaw or make same-sex marriage illegal,” Talerico said. “It’s really limited to the clergy.”

While the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise” of religion, Micciche and Talerico both said the June 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage has created an opportunity to debate where exactly the line should be drawn between church and state.

Should ministers or churches be permitted to discriminate against same-sex marriages? Or should they be forced to conduct those marriages even if their doctrine forbids them?

“I think the recent ruling made this a healthy time to open the discussion,” Micciche said.

While it may be an appropriate time to open the discussion, he added that he doesn’t expect that discussion to close any time soon. He said his “priorities one through ten” of this Legislative session deal with the budget.

“It’s not a priority of mine that we have the discussion this year,” he said.

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