Q&A about ENDA, hate crimes bill

WASHINGTON (BP)--The House of Representatives is expected to vote in the coming days on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a bill opponents say could have a dramatic impact on religious freedoms by forcing Christian businesses and organizations to hire homosexuals.

Known as H.R. 3685, the bill will be debated one month after another piece of legislation related to homosexuality, the hate crimes bill, passed the Senate as part of the defense authorization bill. That latter bill currently is being reviewed by a joint conference between the Senate and House, which had passed a hate crimes bill as a stand-alone bill.

Baptist Press spoke on Oct. 23 with Mike Johnson, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, about both bills and why his organization is opposing them. ADF is a Christian legal organization that defends religious liberties. Following is the transcript:

BAPTIST PRESS: Why should Christians oppose ENDA? After all, supporters say it's simply about protecting individual rights.

JOHNSON: It's a dangerous and blatantly unconstitutional bill. As [ADF President] Alan Sears said, it pits the government directly against the free exercise of religion. That's a problem, because you're placing sexual behaviors and preferences above the constitutional rights of employers.

BP: Supporters say the bill has an exemption for religious organizations. Is it as broad as they say it is?

JOHNSON: It's our contention that it's not a true exemption because it's so very limited. If you look at it closely, only churches -- essentially pastors -- would be exempt under the current provisions. And every other faith-based organization will thereby will be discriminated against under the bill. So, you're looking at Christian schools, Christian camps, pro-family advocacy groups, faith-based soup kitchens and Bible bookstores -- the exemption is not going to cover them.

BP: Even if the bill did have enough exemptions for religious organizations, conservatives would still have concerns, wouldn't they?

JOHNSON: Of course. All of this legislation flies right in the face of free speech and the free exercise of religion. This is one more effort to silence people of faith. So, you have the rights of free association and religious liberty and the freedom of conscience -- guaranteed to us by the Constitution -- being undermined by these laws.

BP: How does the hate crimes bill impact religious freedom, when supporters of the bill say it's simply about protecting people from violent crime?

JOHNSON: First of all, there are no 'love' crimes when it comes to violent crime. All of those are hate crimes. The problem is that, if the bill becomes law, citizens are going to be subject to criminal prosecution -- not just for what they do but for what they think and feel and believe.

The bill is unnecessary, because you've got federal and state laws already in place to punish people who commit violent crimes, and they've served us well. If the legislation becomes law, then you've got this two-tiered discriminatory criminal justice system. All violent crimes deserve equal justice under the law.

But the ultimate problem is that it opens the door for censorship and the prosecution of religious beliefs. That's the primary concern. That's how those laws have been used in other countries. These are not even hypotheticals any longer. We can look to the experiences of other nations to see that it's certain to follow. Hate crimes laws are just an effort to enforce the orthodoxy of political correctness, and it curtails the freedom of speech, and usually that's religious speech.

BP: Give an example of how this could impact the preaching about orthodox beliefs of homosexuality.

JOHNSON: ADF was involved in the now-famous case of [pastor] Ake Green in Sweden. He was criminally tried and convicted for preaching what the Bible said about homosexuality from his own pulpit, within the safe walls of his own church -- or so he thought. And he was convicted, and we had to take it all the way to the Swedish Supreme Court. Ultimately he was acquitted, but that's the kind of thing that it leads to. It opens the door for the restriction of thought and for the prosecution of those who adhere to traditional values and biblical beliefs.

BP: Would you say there are some good-intentioned people in Congress who are supporting these bills who don't realize the negative impact it could have on religious freedom?

JOHNSON: I'm sure that's true. On its surface, it sounds like a good idea to many people. Who would be for hate crimes? But you have to look beneath the surface at what the effect of it will certainly be. In Canada and France, people have been fined for publicly criticizing homosexuality.

BP: Are we dealing here with a slippery slope, where these bills could lead to various court interpretations and perhaps even to worse bills down the road?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. If you open this Pandora's Box, then it's going to be very difficult to stop it. And that's what we've seen in these other countries -- it's always something small that leads to something more. And it desensitizes the public and is a direct threat to religious liberty.

Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press.

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