- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The U.S. Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop is among hundreds of clergy members urging Congress to support gay rights, including the passage of an expanded hate crimes bill that would give gay victims of violence new federal protections.

Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and more than 300 clergy of various faiths plan to spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers to push through a bill that broadens the definition of hate crimes to include those motivated by a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The legislation was passed by the House last week.

Clergy also will push for legislation providing protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It is the second time the lobbying effort known as Clergy Call has been held on Capitol Hill; the first event was held two years ago.

“They’re not here to grind political axes,” said Harry Knox of the Human Rights Campaign, which is sponsoring the event. “They’re here out of a pastoral concern for real people in their congregations who have to deal with the ramifications of hate violence and employment discrimination.”

The 2009 Clergy Call comes amid significant victories for the gay rights movement, including the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont.

Also on Tuesday, the D.C. Council is expected to take a final vote on legislation recognizing same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. The vote will place the issue before Congress, which has final say over the city’s laws.

Bishop Robinson, who delivered the invocation during a kickoff concert at the Lincoln Memorial for President Obama’s inauguration, said that despite recent momentum, an uphill struggle continues for gay rights supporters in the religious community. He said that’s because their message is often overshadowed by many on the religious right.

“Religion in general still presents the greatest obstacles we face in full equality,” he said Monday during a speech at Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Washington. “Ninety-five percent of the oppression that we know in our lives comes from the religious community.”

Bishop Robinson’s 2003 consecration has divided the Episcopal Church in the United States and abroad. Last year, theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans formed a rival North American province.

Bishop Robinson said he continues to deal with threats. On Monday, he spoke of a scare earlier this year in which a man was arrested while driving with a sawed-off shotgun, a map to his home, and photographs of the bishop and his partner taken from the Internet.

He spoke of the importance of clergy members who are reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “We actually are the bridge between the LGBT equality movement and those institutions which are afraid of it,” he said.

Mr. Knox, the director of the Human Rights Campaign’s religion and faith program, said Tuesday’s daylong lobbying effort would include 325 clergy members from various religions representing Christians, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims.