Saturday, August 18, 2007

Essay 4334

From the Chicago Sun-Times…


Ministers fear law would muzzle religious speech

By Deborah Douglas

Gays are going to hell – that’s what some ministers have been preaching and want to keep on preaching. But a proposed hate crimes law would stop them from saying so -- at least that’s what several believe so firmly that they took out an ad in USA Today to warn churchgoers that the law would curb their religious speech.

Arch-conservative ministers complain that their denunciation of homosexuality is mischaracterized by gay-rights activists as hate speech.

But if religious speech is construed as hate speech under the terms of this proposed law -- the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 -- ministers may be thwarted, says Bishop Harry Jackson, pastor of the 3,000-member Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Md.

That’s why Jackson and more than 30 other black ministers around the country signed a full-page ad that ran July 11 in USA Today protesting the hate crimes bill, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 3, awaiting discussion by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Jackson says if parishioners commit a hate crime upon hearing their minister's admonitions, those ministers could be held liable.

“They are taking loopholes in the legislation that would create the opportunity to muzzle the church, the pulpit,” Jackson says. “It’s landmark legislation: For the first time sexual orientation is raised to an equal status with race or creed in American law. I don’t think somebody else’s lifestyle preference should be made equal to my struggle as a black man. [But] my primary argument with this bill is religious liberty.”

Both versions of the House and Senate bills provide federal money, up to $100,000 a year, to help local police solve hate crimes when they’ve exhausted local resources and expertise. Each version covers not only people attacked based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but crimes based on race, color, religion, national origin, gender and disability. The proposed law specifically says it cannot usurp constitutional law -- like the kind that guarantees free speech.

But Jackson says additional protections are not needed. He worries that such legislation gags the church’s position on homosexuality.

Not all religious folks agree.

The Rev. Mel White, 67, a gay minister and the author of Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right, called Jackson disingenuous: “At the heart of this imaginary complaint is the fundamentalist Christians’ belief that … God will remove his hand of blessing from this country” if homosexuals are protected. Under that belief, he says, “America is doomed.”

Mainstream black religious leaders don’t necessarily see the law as a threat to their ministries. The Rev. James Meeks, a state senator and pastor of Salem Baptist Church, says: “Ministers will still have the full right to be able to share the Scriptures as they interpret it. They always have, and they always will.”

But is that speech hateful?

“They can say it, and I can say they are wrong,” White says. “That is what America is about.”

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