PHOENIX — A state lawmaker who also is a pastor unveiled legislation Friday designed to protect himself and other religious leaders from being forced to marry same-sex couples.
The proposal by Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, would make it illegal for government to “require a minister to solemnize a marriage inconsistent with a minister’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” It also would allow churches to not recognize or facilitate marriages inconsistent with their tenets.
Montenegro acknowledged there is currently no danger of such a mandate.
The U.S. Supreme Court did require the federal government to recognize gay nuptials performed in states where legal. But that ruling left untouched Arizona’s own constitutional ban on such unions, whether performed here or elsewhere.
Montenegro said, though, that federal courts have increasingly overturned state bans, most recently in Utah.
He also pointed to a lawsuit filed in Utah against the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints accusing it and the state of conspiring to deprive gays of the freedom to marry. So Montenegro wants to do what he can to cut off that possibility before it occurs here.
“There are many things that both of us would say, ‘Wow. I didn’t see that coming,’ ” Montenegro said. He said the legislation is a pre-emptive strike.
The proposed language is being added to existing state laws which already make it illegal for the government to “substantially burden” anyone’s free exercise of religion. Under those laws, the only exception is when the legislation or regulation furthers some “compelling governmental interest’’ and is “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.
Montenegro said he is trying to keep his own measure as narrow as possible.
For example, it spells out that the protection against having to recognize a same-sex marriage does not extend to hospitals, hotels, restaurants, businesses or other places of public accommodation. That is designed to avoid it becoming a weapon in legal fights similar to one in New Mexico, where that state’s high court ruled a commercial wedding photographer could not refuse to take pictures of a same-sex wedding.
“We’re not trying to go out and pick a fight,” Montenegro said, adding the legislation would not bar a pastor, minister, rabbi or other religious leader from voluntarily presiding over a same-sex marriage, though under current Arizona law it would not be recognized by the state.
Montenegro conceded the entire effort could prove meaningless even if he gets it approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer: A court could still rule the measure unconstitutional. But Montenegro said he still thinks the effort is worthwhile.
“As representatives of the people here in Arizona, we want to make sure we’re doing our part to protect the religious freedoms of pastors, ministers, and the churches,” he said.
Montenegro’s bio says he has a degree in theology and currently serves as associate and youth pastor at the Surprise Apostolic Assembly.