PIERRE (AP) — Two bills filed in the South Dakota Legislature seek to protect clergy, church officials and businesspeople who refuse to take part in gay marriages or receptions because of their religious beliefs.
The South Dakota Constitution and states laws already ban gay marriage, but Sen. Ernie Otten, R-Tea, said he proposed the bills because courts could overturn the ban as they have in other states. Lawsuits in some states have threatened businesses that refused to provide wedding cakes, flowers or other services for same-sex ceremonies, he said.
The bills would prevent clergy or businesses from being forced to perform or supply goods or services to anything related to same-sex marriages. It could allow a South Dakota business to refuse to host a reception for a same-sex couple legally married in another state.
The bills also say clergy and businesses could not be sued or charged with crimes if they refused to take part in gay marriages.
Otten said the measures are not intended to hurt gay people, but he believes gay-rights activists are going too far in suing people who refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies or to provide services for such weddings.
“It’s unconscionable that somebody from the outside would come in and bring a family business to ruin over activism,” Otten said.
Don Frankenfeld, of Rapid City, a member of Equality South Dakota, said he believes the bill dealing with clergy is irrelevant because the constitutional separation of church and state protects clergy members from being forced to perform any ceremony that runs counter to their beliefs.
Frankenfeld said the measure dealing with businesses seems to be an assault on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was passed mostly to prevent businesses from refusing service to black people.
“You can’t be forced to believe that gay marriage is OK. But you can be forced and you should be forced in your business to provide the same goods and services you provide to anyone else, regardless of their orientation or their color or their religion,” Frankenfeld said.
Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, the lead House sponsor of the measures, said the bills are tolerant of gay people and those who oppose same-sex marriage. Gay people can find someone to marry them and provide wedding services, but they shouldn’t be able to force pastors or businesses to take part.
Hickey, pastor of a Sioux Falls church, said a court ruling legalizing gay marriage in South Dakota might expose him to lawsuits or prosecution because he believes in traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
“Religious rights need to continue to trump gay rights. Otherwise, we’re heading down the road of Iran, where it’s convert or die, be quiet or die,” Hickey said. “If we want to talk about church and state, this is a bill that keeps the state out of my church.”
Hickey said the public is free to avoid churches and businesses that don’t support gay marriage, but he also anticipates a lot of public support for “people who don’t want to make a wedding cake with a two-groom topper on it.”
Judges in Oklahoma and Utah recently overturned bans on same-sex marriages in those states. And a state agency in Oregon and an administrative law judge in Colorado recently found that bakers who refused to make wedding cakes for same-sex ceremonies had discriminated against the couples. Cases in other states have involved refusals to provide flowers or take photos in same-sex marriages.
Lawrence Novotny, chairman of Equality South Dakota, said he sees no reason the bills were filed because the state already bans gay marriage. The bills are not needed and lawmakers should defeat them, he said.
State laws ban gay marriage and say South Dakota does not recognize same-sex marriages from other states. A 2006 state constitutional amendment says only a marriage between a man and woman is valid.