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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.