A religious liberty group is trying to reassure Pennsylvania pastors who fear they could face prosecution under a new law if they preach against homosexuality.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sent a letter [Requires pdf viewer] to 9,000 houses of worship across the state June 18 after a hate-crimes law was amended to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as motives that trigger heavier penalties for the crime of “harassment.”
“It is a measure of our times that religious leaders have lately considered taking out liability insurance to cover remarks made from the pulpit,” said Becket Fund President Kevin J. Hasson.
Of particular concern to pastors is the amendment’s expansion of the definition of “harassment” to include “harassment by communication” – which means one could be convicted on the basis of spoken words alone.
“Although legislators expressly disavowed the motive at the time, one might be forgiven the impression that one purpose of this legislation was to generate a fear of prosecution among those who would preach and teach in favor of the traditional prohibition on homosexual behavior – a teaching so common to so many faiths,” Hasson noted.
However, the Becket Fund’s letter explained to clergy that the new law should not deter them from preaching against homosexual conduct.
The group says that although the language of the law appears to cover preaching from the pulpit, it is unlikely to be applied that way.
The Becket Fund also offered to help ministers threatened with such prosecution.
“We will defend, free of charge, anything said from the pulpit, conservative or liberal, wisdom or nonsense, so long as it is a religious message given in good faith,” Hasson declared.
Opponents fear the Bible will be regarded as “hate literature” under the criminal code in certain instances, as evidenced by the case of a Saskatchewan man fined by a provincial human-rights tribunal for taking out a newspaper ad with Scripture references to verses about homosexuality.