Should South Florida Churches Pay Tax if They Deny Gay Marriage?

Tony Verdugo is a sore loser. As executive director of the South Florida-based Christian Family Coalition, he has spent the past month searching for legal loopholes so churches can deny the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriages and maintain their tax-exempt status.

Last month, his ultraconservative group hosted “Marriage Protection Councils” across Florida, where lawyers explained how to update the fine print in their paperwork so churches could continue to deny gay marriages and not get sued. A few weeks later, he launched a petition titled “Clergy and Religious Institution Protection Act.” Yesterday, the group announced that 2,000 people had signed the petition. Once 2,500 people sign, it will head to Gov. Rick Scott, Florida State Senate President Andy Gardiner, and Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Hon. Steve Crisafulli.

“This bill will reaffirm the freedom of religion and reinforce that religious entity’s tax-exempt status will not be taken away should they refuse to solemnize any marriage that is contrary to their religious belief,” the petition declares. “Until such protections are codified under law, there is ambiguity.”

The number of people who sign Verdugo's petition has no effect on whether it will become enacted into law. The process of adding an amendment to the ballot through signatures is much more complex than an online petition. Close to 70,000 signatures and the language of the bill have to be verified by the Florida Supreme Court. Then 600,000 more signatures have to be submitted to the Florida Division of Elections. Only then can it appear on the ballot, where 60 percent have voters have to support it.

This push is kinda wacky, because religious freedom is already protected in Florida and across the country. Discrimination, however, is not. At the Palm Beach Marriage Protection council held last month, Verdugo helped churchgoers and pastors "prepare for the coming storm against the church." He pointed to different situations across the country were pastors and churches were unfairly sued for discrimination, when, he argued, it should've been protected under their religious freedom. (Like in 2012, when a New Jersey court ruled against a church for banning a gay marriage ceremony.) 

This petition comes after the Supreme Court ruling but also a Time op-ed titled “Now’s the Time to End Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions.” The piece argued that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing nonprofits and churches with tax-exempt status, pointing to the gay-marriage ruling as a reason to break those obligations should churches deny gay marriages.

Another reverend in Orlando launched a similar petition that had more than 23,000 supporters. So even though Verdugo's bill hasn’t reached the 2,500 signature goal (which, again, is really meaningless, since a constitutional amendment requires far more), it has gained enough political clout. Two Florida state lawmakers have already drafted the bill. Earlier this week, Florida House Rep. Scott Plakon filed it as House Bill #43. It is two pages long.

If state lawmakers pass the bill, Florida would follow Texas and Oklahoma, where versions of this act have already been signed into law.

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