Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from state Rep. Celia Israel.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed a bill Thursday that allows clergy members to refuse to conduct marriages that violate their beliefs, said that "pastors now have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights."

The signing ceremony for the so-called Pastor Protection Act, which goes into effect Sept. 1, was held outside the Governor's Mansion. Abbott was surrounded by about two dozen clergy members at a news conference discussing the law. Others attending the signing ceremony included Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, who authored the bill.

“Freedom of religion is the most sacred of our rights and our freedom to worship is secured by the Constitution,” Abbott said. “Religious leaders in the state of Texas must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that religious freedom is beyond the reach of government or coercion by the courts."

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With the signing of the bill, "Texas took a small but important step to further protect the religious freedom of clergy in the face of increasing hostility toward people of faith in all walks of life," Paxton said in a statement. "No Pastor, Priest, Rabbi or other religious leader should be forced to perform or recognize a marriage that contradicts his or her sincere religious belief.

Estes has said the bill is about protecting pastors "who have a strong religious belief " against same-sex marriage.

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said in a statement released Thursday that she believes it's possible to support both equality and religious liberty. 

"Texans are ready for equality, and if this measure gives pastors a peace of mind, I welcome it becoming law," Israel said.

Critics had argued that Senate Bill 2065 attempts to make it difficult for same-sex couples to marry in Texas, in case the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes gay marriages.


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