by Jessica Carreras
BAY CITY, Mich. – Three Michigan pastors, along with American Family Association of Michigan head Gary Glenn, claim a new hate crime law infringes on their First Amendment rights and should be declared unconstitutional.
They filed a lawsuit Tuesday, Feb. 2, to try to strike down the portion of the federal law that expands federal hate crimes legislation to protect people targeted because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last fall as an attachment to the 2010 Defense Spending Bill.
The pastors believe they could be targeted for their sermons against what they refer to as “gay lifestyles.”
The plaintiffs include Jim Combs of Waterford, Rene Ouellette of Bridgeport and Levon Yuille of Ypsilanti. Combs is the pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Waterford, while Ouellette and Yuille represent the First Baptist Church of Bridgeport and The Bible Church of Ypsilanti, respectively.
According to the text of the lawsuit, Yuille, who hosts a talk radio show, has been “warned by his Canadian listeners that he will be targeted for adverse law enforcement action under … the Hate Crimes Act for his public ministry.” It also adds that Yuille finds comparisons between the LGBT rights struggle and the “real civil rights struggle of African Americans” offensive.
The suit references several cases in which leaders in the LGBT community called for holding pastors accountable for preaching hate to their members, who then committed hate crimes against LGBT people.
The lawsuit also includes several references to Bible verses that the plaintiffs claim are “facts” against homosexuality, justifying their sermons preaching against the LGBT community. “As Christians,” the text reads, “plaintiffs are called to spread God’s Word, including God’s Word regarding homosexuality.”
Metropolitan Community Church of Detroit Pastor Mark Bidwell weighed in on that issue, saying, “Why would anyone ‘Christian’ preach, tolerate or condone hate towards another human being? Jesus Christ didn’t preach hate, but love, tolerance and justice for all people.”
“As a devout Christian, pastor and … an openly gay man,” added Bidwell, “I also believe that this lawsuit is unjustified, a waste of our taxpayers money and time and a purpose for people like Gary Glenn to get on a pedestal to make money and get recognition.”
AFA-Mchigan’s Glenn, an outspoken opponent of LGBT rights advances in Michigan and beyond, is known to be involved most anti-gay efforts in the state, including leading the charge against city-wide anti-discrimination laws and co-authoring 2004’s Proposal 2, which banned same-sex marriages in the state.
As stated in the current lawsuit, “Plaintiff Glenn is an outspoken opponent of homosexual activism and so-called ‘gay rights’ legislation.”
His efforts have seen varying degrees of success.
But supporters of the hate crimes law are skeptical about Glenn and the pastors’ chances of striking down the federal act. They say it’s aimed at acts of violence, not speech by clergy. The Justice Department says it will defend the law.
Locally, Michigan’s LGBT Triangle Foundation Executive Director Alicia Skillman believes that the case will be thrown out as it makes its way through the court system.
“I’m not surprised by it, because I know its been the stance of Gary Glenn and the AFA that it takes away some First Amendment rights, but I believe that they’re totally off-base,” Skillman commented. “As it goes through the court systems, I believe it will be dismissed. It seems unfounded, to me. If you look at the statute, First Amendment rights are protected.”
ACLU of Michigan LGBT Project Staff Attorney Jay Kaplan echoed her opinion, adding that the hate crimes law “specifically provides” protection for free speech, expressive conduct and freedom of religion – something the ACLU supports. “The ACLU believes that the expressions of ministers, whether they’re pro or against gays, it’s constitutionally protected speech,” he said. “The law … provides protection for what the plaintiffs are complaining they will no longer be able to do. They will stay be able to preach their message regarding whether or not they support LGBT rights, either Gary Glenn or these ministers.”
The lawsuit is in federal court in Bay City. The plaintiffs are being represented by the Thomas More Law Center of Ann Arbor.
Skillman added that the Triangle Foundation would be watching the case closely and plan to attend any hearings for the lawsuit. “We’ll definitely come up with a strategy to address it,” she said.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.