Gay-Rights Groups Employ Faith to Push Bills

By Jacqueline L. Salmon Today, more than 300 clergy from a variety of faith and denominations will fan out over … Continued

By Jacqueline L. Salmon

Today, more than 300 clergy from a variety of faith and denominations will fan out over Capitol Hill to preach a unified gay-rights message to members of Congress: Pass the hate crimes bill that would give sexual orientation and gender identity the same federal protection as race, and pass the employment non-discrimination bill that would protect gays.

Clergy Call is the second clergy event organized by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, a gay-rights organization that has been pushing for the legislation for years and has an ambitious legislative agenda for this Congressional session.

The hate-crimes legislation passed the House of Representative last week and the group is “cautiously optimistic” about the Senate, according to Harry Knox, the Human Rights Campaign’s director of religion and faith program. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (that is, transgender people) is expected to be introduced later this summer.

President Obama has pledged to sign both bills. Indeed, he co-sponsored the two bills during his tenure as a U.S. senator from Illinois.

Supporters have been pushing hate crimes legislation for a decade. It has previously been attached to other legislation and passed both houses of Congress, but has been eliminated in conference committees.
ENDA passed the house in 2007 but without the transgender clause. That was added back in this year after being stripped from the anti-discrimination bill that passed the House in 2007, a controversial move but one that was designed to attract the support of wavering Democrats.

Conservative Christian and Jewish groups have fought the hate-crimes legislation as violating the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. They have warned that it could be used to prosecute members of the clergy who preach against homosexuality. First Amendment lawyers say there is nothing in the language of the bill that would allow for the prosecution of individuals who simply speak out against gays, although they acknowledge that nothing prohibits an aggressive prosecutor from trying such an approach.

As for ENDA, Connie Mackey, then vice president of government affairs with the Family Research Council, said in 2002 that ENDA will require Americans “to hire people they believe to be committing immoral acts… It violates employers’ and employees’ freedom of religion, of speech and association.”

The Human Rights Campaign took on conservative Christians when it launched its religion and faith program as a way to use the language of faith to push gay-rights issues. Knox, who attended Lancaster Theological Seminary but was denied his divinity degree because he was gay, has been urging gay-rights activists to use their faith when lobbying for increased rights for gays in Congress and state houses. Clergy Call was previously held in 2007, which brought 230 religious leaders to Washington.

Currently, Knox is a “proud member of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington – a wonderful multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial, just peace, open and affirming congregation in the heart of the city.” Ironically, it’s the same denomination that turned him down for the ministry 20 years ago.

Aside from the hate-crime bill and ENDA, gay-rights groups are also aiming for other victories, including bills that would extend partnership benefits to federal employees, repeal the Defense of Marriage Act and overturn the military’s “don’t Ask, don’t tell” policy But Knox says that, at least for now: We’ll just be focused on hate crimes and ENDA this time as they are the topics that are currently before Congress.”

UPDATE: Third Way, a progressive think tank, has posted a memo to faith-based groups about the hate crime bill. It concludes that clergy members could not be prosecuted for preaching against homosexuality from the pulpit under the bill. But I doubt that will mollify those on the right, who have some deep concerns about the legislation.

  • nunivek

    Sir, your post is terribly enigmatic about what behaviour this bill would actually criminalize. Thus it is hard to determine what exactly you are in support of. My question would be this: Is it discrimination to refuse employment based on sexual behaviour rather than sexual orientation? They are most certainly not the same thing. One can be attracted to people only of the same sex and not engage in any sexual relations. This issue is not particularly relevant for most places of employment because they could care less who you have sex with, but for many religious institutions there are distinct qualifications particularly for clergy.

  • PolishBear1

    People err when assuming that expanding the hate crimes statute to include sexual orientation (meaning Gay AND Straight, by the way) will “criminalize” a person’s thoughts. The current hate crimes law has been on the books since 1969, and NEVER over the past 40 years has someone been prosecuted for expressing prejudice against members of a race or a religious group. Christian pastors have been invoking Scripture against non-Christians for as long as there have been Christians, and the hate crimes statute has never been used against them.But there is a BIG difference between expressing personal prejudice against a group, and being motivated by that prejudice to attack a person’s person or property. I don’t care if Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Sean Hannity or Lou Sheldon hurl their anti-Gay invective until the cows come home; but if someone uses Scripture as a justification for beating up someone who is Gay, that’s a different story.Likewise when it comes to delineating between different crimes against property: There’s a big moral and ethical difference between someone who spraypaints a “tag” on a highway overpass, and someone who spraypaints swastikas on the front of a synagogue.Until conservatives mount a concerted effort to repeal the federal hate crimes statute that has been in effect for past 40 years, I’ll continue to see their arguments against the legislation now being considered as pretty disengenuous.

  • nunivek

    Upon reading the text of the bill that passed the House, religious organizations of all kinds are exempt as are the U.S. Military and all businesses with less than 15 employees. Upon reading the text there are two things worth noting, this bill distinctly supports gender bifurcation by only identifying three types of sexual orientation which can be contended to be an outdated approach to gender construction.

  • nunivek

    Upon rereading the article you did mention a second piece of legislation though you could have actually named it. These two bills are addressing entirely different issues however and have distinctly different aims and objections towards them.Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, seems to extend financial provision to law enforcement as well as criminalize crimes against a person’s body based upon sexual orientation or gender identity. There is absolutely nothing in the bill about speech, this is a hate-crimes bill not a hate-speech bill. There doesn’t even appear to be anything initally evident in the bill about incitement to violence, though that may be part of the provisions of the original bill that are not mentioned by these new additions. I doubt that the mainstream religious organizations are against the criminalization of hate-violence. Because all violence against someone should be against the law and if it is motivated by group hatred that seems to be particularly heinous. Though I do understand the fear that these groups have about free speech issues, though there have been no instances in which the hate-crimes bill has been used to limit free speech from what I understand.

  • TammieH

    Nunivek, but some employers do care about sexual orientation, people have been fired after being discovered that they were gay or transgender. I know there are no guarantees, companies find ways to get rid of anyone they find less desirable for one reason or another. Racism and bigotry still exists, if nothing else, legislation sends a message.