This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is concern in some religious right corners over expansion of federal hate-crimes law. Democrats in Congress are moving on including protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and the legislation is progressing nicely. The expansion has been endorsed by the Obama Justice Department, and the White House has said the president will sign the bill into law.

U.S. News’ Dan Gilgoff reports this week that some conservative religious groups aren’t just throwing a fit, they’re making bogus claims intended to scare other faith communities.

[C]onservative Christian groups, who’ve led the charge against expanding the federal hate crimes law since the mid-1990s, are stepping up warnings that the bill threatens religious liberties, including the freedom of clergy to condemn homosexuality. “What you say from the pulpit could literally become illegal,” the Family Research Council wrote in a recent letter to pastors. The conservative Alliance Defense Fund has received more calls and E-mails on what the hate crimes bill means for pastors than on any other issue in recent months.

As religious conservatives mount a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, however, legal experts say the legislation narrowly focuses on violent acts and that pastors’ speech remains protected by the First Amendment. And some religious activists acknowledge that they’re less concerned about the immediate effects of expanding hate crimes protections than about the broader message it sends.

“This is the first time you would have written into law a government disapproval of a religious belief held by the majority of Americans — that homosexuality is sinful,” says Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. “It’s more of a slippery slope argument than about the law itself.”

That’s at least more intellectually honest than telling faith communities, “The government will penalize you if you’re a pastor who criticizes gays from your pulpit.” I find the slippery slope argument to be wildly unpersuasive — a slippery slope towards what, exactly? — but I’m glad to see at least some acknowledgement that the talking points warning of dire consequences are baseless.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* The issue of religious liberty came up briefly during Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings this week. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) brought up a case in which she ruled that a prison violated a Muslim inmate’s rights when officials denied him access to religious meals marking the end of Ramadan. Sotomayor explained, “[I]t is a very important and central part of our democratic society that we do give freedom of religion, the practice of religion, that the Constitution restricts the state from establishing a religion, and that we have freedom of expression in speech, as well.” That’s not much to go on, but it seemed at least relatively encouraging.

* In Connecticut, a Roman Catholic diocese has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider whether it can keep sex abuse documents hidden from public view. A state court has ordered the Bridgeport Diocese to release more than 12,000 pages of documents resulting from more than 20 lawsuits. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, church officials believe they have a First Amendment right to keep the materials, which help document how church leaders handled abuse allegations, from the public.

* And Episcopal bishops had a big debate this week on gay marriage, and ended up giving “latitude” to bishops who wish to bless same-sex unions, especially in states that have embraced marriage-equality laws. The Episcopal Church declined, however, to develop an official rite for gay marriage.