WASHINGTON – Conservative pastors rallied outside the Justice Department on Monday to test the limits of the newly expanded hate crimes law.
Calling the new law – which broadens the definition of federal hate crimes to include attacks based on sexual orientation and gender identity – a clear threat to religious liberty, the group sought to defend their freedom to proclaim biblical truths.
"You may choose to disbelieve or disagree with us but you have no right to seek to silence us," said Dr. Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America Action, as pro-gay clergy and some from the gay and lesbian community gathered with signs reading "My love is legit."
"If this law is used to silence me or any of these preachers for speaking the truth, then we will be forced to conscientiously defy it," Scarborough declared. "That is my calling as a Christian and my right as an American citizen."
After a decade-long dispute, the hate crimes legislation was tacked on to a must-pass defense appropriations bill this year and passed by the House and Senate. President Barack Obama signed the bill last month.
Clergy, religious broadcasters and conservative groups fear the legislation will subject them to prosecution for preaching what they believe the Bible says – that homosexual behavior is sin. While some believe they are exaggerating the effects of the expanded hate crimes law, the group on Monday was convinced they could be targeted for their speech and beliefs.
Janet Porter, president of Faith2Action and author of The Criminalization of Christianity, cited Title 18 of the United States Code regarding accessories to crime. It states: "Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal."
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"That's how they go after speech," Porter explained at the rally.
The group also pointed to cases in Canada and the United Kingdom where Christians have already been feeling the negative effects of similar hate-crimes legislations.
Paul Diamond, a barrister from Great Britain, said people are scared to exercise their rights as a number of preachers, including Aake Green from Sweden, and other individuals have been threatened with imprisonment for preaching against homosexuality or for speaking out against its promotion.
"Our freedoms are very much inhibited in the last few years as Judeo-Christian values are driven from the public square," he said. "We've been there. ... We have lessons to tell you. And this is a road you don't want to go down."
Amid the arguments, a couple of ministers preached short sermons in hopes of sharing the Gospel with the homosexual community.
"God loves the homosexual," the Rev. Grace Harley of Jesus Is the Answer Ministries in Silver Spring, Md., declared.
As someone who previously lived as a transgender (as a man) for 18 years, Harley testified that God set her free and can set others free from all kinds of sexual immorality, not just homosexuality. Jesus died on the cross so that you may be saved, she preached.
Offering a personalized version of the biblical passage Luke 13:13, she said, "Immediately she was made straight and glorified God."
"I don't just walk as a woman," she noted, "but now I know the truth."
Concerned about the new hate crimes law, Harley believes she is being silenced.
"It seems the government is shutting me down," she said as she expressed her desire to share her story without fear.
The group of clergy insisted that their motivation is love.
"The love of Christ compels us to call any sin, whether this sin (homosexuality) or any other sin, wrong," Scarborough said. "Christ shed his blood so sinners can be forgiven."
"Frankly, the church is largely comprised of people who are caught up in various sins but who later came to Christ," he noted.
Those from the homosexual community were not persuaded.
Sampson McCormick, 23, says he's always been gay and has a healthy relationship with God. But he believes sermons and speeches against homosexuality incite hate and are not motivated out of love.
"They preach from their interpretation of the Bible and it forces people to hate themselves," he commented, adding that it also incites hate crimes.
But Scarborough submitted, "To fail to call homosexuals to repent of their sin and come to Jesus is the highest form of cowardice and sin for it denies homosexuals of the privilege of hearing the good news that Jesus forgives all sin and can set them free.
"The real hate speech is that which perverts the word of God to fit the latest cultural fad."
During the rally, some of the clergy delivered a five-page letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing their concerns with the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Though police authorities were present, there were no arrests made during the event.
Those involved in Monday's rally included Gary Cass of the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission; Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition; Jim Garlow, a southern California pastor who led the Proposition 8 battle; Michael Marcavage of Repent America; and Bishop E.W. Jackson of STAND America, among others.