The movement to expand the definition of a hate crime to include same-sex sexual orientation as a protected class has garnered some unlikely foes -- a group of Virginia pastors.
Similar federal legislation recently failed. So did an effort to expand protection to homosexuals in hiring discrimination cases.
The Rev. Joe Ellison, executive director of Pastors for Family Values, worries that similar legislation may be proposed during this year's General Assembly session, which kicks off Jan. 9.
"We're not homophobic, but we have the right to hire the people we want in our churches," says Ellison, who will lead the group's lobbying efforts at the Capitol. "The government should not be involved."
Pastors for Family Values grew from lobbying efforts surrounding last year's successful marriage amendment campaign. During that campaign, a group of pastors, including Ellison, approached the Richmond-based Family Foundation to help work for the cause.
Afterward, the pastors a group that's grown to about 60 pastors from all denominations asked their Family Foundation allies if they could organize as an arm the group.
The pairing was ideal, says Chris Freund, a Family Foundation spokesman, who confirmed his own organization's concerns about possible state legislative efforts that would force churches to hire gays and lesbians and could ban them from speaking against sexual practices they consider morally wrong.
"We haven't seen [the bills] yet, but we suspect [they] will be submitted," Freund says. "That's the big fear. Both bills really put us on that slippery slope to hire people they would not normally hire, who they feel violate biblical principles."
Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia, a leading statewide lobbying organization for gay, lesbian and transgender issues, says the pastors' fears are overstated and poorly thought out.
The federal hate crimes bill had a religious exemption, Mason says, and the hiring nondiscrimination bill was in line with the will of the people. She cites a recent poll showing 87 percent of respondents favoring an end to workplace discrimination.
"These groups are very intimidated by the fact that there's a growing fair-minded majority in Virginia and around the country," she says. "Protecting people based on their gender identity does not threaten their religion. That is a very American value. That's a very religious value. That's a very Virginia value."
But homosexuality is not a religious or family value, says Ellison, who repeats that he doesn't condemn homosexuals, just homosexual acts.
He says churches have the right God-given to express and defend their faith. He expects other pastors agree, anticipating increased enrollment as the legislative session kicks off and the group begins its efforts, which also include a stand against predatory lending practices.
"We want this to be the strongest conservative evangelical group in the state," he says of Pastors for Family Values. "We want to be diverse. We want to pick the ball up where the moral majority left off." Chris Dovi