Could Gay Protections Trump Religious Freedom?

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VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Gay rights advocates often claim that gay Americans are denied employment, fired from their jobs, or otherwise discriminated against just because they are gay.

In response, advocacy groups have been pushing for a federal law to protect lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgendered individuals from employment discrimination.

But some wonder if such a law could endanger the religious freedom Americans have enjoyed since this country was founded.

Currently, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA forbids employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Now, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote soon on a bill that would create special protections for gays.

For more on the impact ENDA could have, click play for comments from Regent University law professor Bradley Jacobs, following Heather Sells' report.

Many Christians fear this protection will come at the expense of their freedom and what it could mean for businesses and public schools.

"ENDA is in principle a good idea -- that is to say continuing protections for employees against unjustified discrimination," explained Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "The difficulty here is that the behavior in question is homosexuality."

Religious Employers Not Exempt

ENDA has been introduced in every Congress except one since 1994. But this year, the momentum to pass the bill appears much stronger. The real question for people of faith is just how robust are its religious exemptions?

Right now, a number of loopholes exist. Under the ENDA legislation's current configuration, Christian retailers are not exempt. That means any Christian business with 15 or more employees would have to comply if the law was passed.

Scottie Velvin and her husband have owned The Harvest Company, a Christian bookstore in Chesapeake, Va., for more than 20 years. They're following ENDA closely although they have fewer than 15 workers. They believe ENDA could influence the publishers whose books they buy and possibly future employees.

"Long-term we may see some changes," Velvin told CBN News. "I'm not naive enough to think this is the end of it. Bills in the past have been altered and amended and it could very easily happen to this one."

A Cause for Concern

Attorney Austin R. Nimocks with the The Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian non-profit organization, argues that Christian businesses like Velvin's have every reason to be concerned.

"A law that would require an organization to retain employees who don't fulfill that organization's mission is a dangerous law," he said. "It's like requiring an environmental group to fill up its board with a bunch of lumberjacks or requiring a Democratic senator to hire a bunch of Republican staffers."

Also at risk, Christian para-church organizations like the humanitarian group World Vision. It has spent years in court defending its religious status. It may have to again under the religious exemption language found in ENDA.

Tying Hands of Educators?

Nimocks and other conservatives believe ENDA will also impede public schools. The special protections for gay and transgendered teachers will make it extremely difficult for districts that might want to remove them from the classroom.

"The ability of school and school districts and principals to make sure that there are proper educators and influences for the children is going to be much more difficult," Nimocks said.

Religious freedom advocates believe ENDA's religious exemption language could and should be strengthened.

"It would be really good to have language in ENDA that says this is a bill that's intended to protect certain employees but not at the expense of religious freedom," Carlson-Thies said.

Is Marriage Next?

Many advocates are wondering what could come next. First, it was hate crimes. Then ENDA -- followed by same-sex marriage? That's already been the pattern in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

"We know this president and the leadership of this Congress have advocated for the repeal of DOMA," Nimocks explained. "So redefining marriage at the federal level could definitely be the next step."

For now, Christian employers and employees are hoping Congress will not just protect sexual freedom, but constitutionally mandated religious freedom as well.

Colby May, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, is scheduled to appear on Tuesday's broadcast of The 700 Club to discuss the ENDA legislation. Click play to watch the interview.

*Originally broadcast on April 20, 2010. 

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CBN News
Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells covers a variety of issues for CBN News ranging from immigration and religious liberty to human trafficking, privacy issues and food.

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