NASHVILLE, Tenn. --The hate crimes bill currently making its way through Congress has led to charges by Christian conservatives that it could impact religious freedoms.
The bill would expand current hate crimes laws to include protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- terms that encompass homosexuality and transgenderism.
On Friday Baptist Press spoke with Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel and dean of Liberty University School of Law, and asked him about the bill, which he opposes. Following is the transcript:
BAPTIST PRESS: "Religious conservatives often charge that passage of a hate crimes law that includes sexual orientation would impact religious freedom. Supporters say it targets only criminal acts. How would it impact religious freedom?"
STAVER: "For starters, sexual orientation and gender identity gets elevated to the same level as race. And whenever you start putting sexual orientation and gender identity at the protected level and status as race, you begin to set a policy, and that policy goes far beyond the actual words of the statute -- just like the Bob Jones [University] case. There was no statute that said Bob Jones could not have an interracial dating restriction. There was the general policy in employment law that said you couldn't discriminate on the basis of race. So the IRS used that general policy to revoke their tax-exempt status. And Bob Jones, when they filed suit, lost.
"Once you start elevating homosexual behavior to the same level as race, you jeopardize tax-exempt status. That is what happened to the Methodist organization up in New Jersey, where they lost tax-exempt status for one of their properties on the beach. [The Methodist organization, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, denied use of the property to a lesbian couple for a commitment ceremony].
"[Passage of the bill] also paves the way for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and it paves the way for future court cases to say that homosexuality is a protected class and therefore you must have marriage equality or same-sex marriage. That's, in fact, what happened in Massachusetts when they looked at their individual state laws. [The court] said, well we've already had state laws that protect sexual orientation and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, so consequently we can't withhold marriage licenses."
BAPTIST PRESS: "So is the concern more over the hate crimes bill specifically or what could this could lead to?"
STAVER: "I think it's both over the bill specifically and what it could lead to. Under the hate crimes bill, even though at the end of the day you may be able to defend yourself in court, the fact that you're even dragged into court creates a significant chilling on your free speech and exercise of religion. Like in the Philadelphia 11 case. [A case in which members of the Christian organization Repent America were charged with, among other things, ethnic intimidation for protesting at a 'gay rights' celebration.] In that case, they were charged under a local hate crimes law. And all they had been doing was picketing.... They got it dismissed but the fact that somebody even leveled the charge caused significant turmoil and expense to the individuals."
BAPTIST PRESS: "Some people have also charged that the hate crimes bill could impact what pastors are allowed to say in the pulpit. Do you think that's an extreme charge or is it on the mark?"
STAVER: "It's not an extreme charge because when we look at what's happened in other countries, very similar laws have been used to end up targeting pastors. In a unique situation, it could target a pastor. In most situations it will not. However, I think it's not beyond reason that this could in fact be used at some point against pastors."
BAPTIST PRESS: "Do you see a situation where a pastor could be brought into court and asked to testify about what he said in a sermon about homosexuality if a member ends up committing a crime?"
STAVER: "Absolutely. I see that as a real possibility."
BAPTIST PRESS: "The bill's language targets hate crimes. Some of the examples [from foreign countries] that you and I are talking about involve hate speech laws. Do you see the difference there between hate crimes and hate speech?"
STAVER: "I see a significant difference between hate crimes and alleged hate speech. However, homosexual advocates don't. They conflate the two as one. The city and county of San Francisco passed a resolution that said that hate speech leads to hate crimes like the murder of Matthew Shepard. They specifically referred to Focus on the Family and Promise Keepers and in particular the Love Won Out campaign, which said that homosexuals can change. In their resolution they said that hate speech is saying that homosexuality is wrong or that it can change.... They wanted to ban what they called hate speech."
BAPTIST PRESS: "Do you think supporters of the bill are well-meaning?"
STAVER: "I think some supporters of the bill are just simply ill-informed. I wouldn't say that they're not well-meaning. But there's too much information out there on this issue and just on general law-making principles to pass this.... Some advocates of the bill oftentime say that the symbolism of the bill is more important than the actual effect of the bill, because it really opens the door for a greater advancement of the homosexual agenda."
BAPTIST PRESS: "By comparison to other countries, America has greater constitutional protections for religious freedom. Does that not give you some comfort?"
STAVER: "Not with activist judges. No. I've experienced the abortion distortion in the context of First Amendment litigation for the past 20 years. You can have almost identical facts under a civil rights case with regards to picketing or demonstrating, and you change the subject matter to abortion and all of a sudden you lose those protected rights that you would have had if you were picketing for civil rights in the 1960s. When you have judges who abandon the rule of law and are ideologically driven, it's the subject matter that changes the rules and they're no longer principled. What we have are a number of judges that are ideologically driven and do not follow the rule of law."