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Religious leaders in Western Pa. fear changing laws’ impact

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Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Pastor Clarke Lauffer of Calvary Chapel of Westmoreland County in Greensburg, stands for a portrait on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.
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Brian F. Henry | Trib Total Media
Pastor Mike Sneeringer of Bible Fellowship Community Church in West Newton, stands for a portrait on Friday, Oct. 31, 2014.

When the Rev. Mike Sneeringer stands before his congregation Sunday morning in Westmoreland County, he won’t change his words or shy away from controversial topics such as same-sex marriage.

He will, however, preach knowing his words could have greater consequences.

“I do fear that there is going to be a point when there is going to be a time that the things that I say will upset people, and we’re going to get sued,” said Sneeringer, who leads Bible Fellowship Community Church in West Newton. “And we carry insurance for that.”

Recent court decisions on gay marriage and health insurance requirements, non-discrimination laws and hate-crime legislation have pastors across America asking the government to stop telling them what they can or can’t say and do.

In Idaho, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed same-sex marriages last month and controversy swirled around an Old West-themed wedding chapel that refused to marry gay couples.

In Houston, pastors opposed to an ordinance banning discrimination of gay and transgender residents faced subpoenas from the mayor to obtain speeches, sermons and presentations given to their congregations.

And in Pennsylvania, Bishop David Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, sued the federal government to stop it from using the Affordable Care Act to force the church or its affiliate, Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, to pay for contraceptives it opposes.

The wedding chapel owners avoided jail time, the Houston mayor withdrew the subpoenas and the diocese won an injunction exempting it from the health care mandate, but all serve as examples of a growing trend of government “stepping into the domain of pastors,” said Sam Rohrer, president of the American Pastors Network and head of the Pennsylvania chapter.

“We must be on guard,” he said, of church rights of freedom of speech and religion under the Constitution.

Three churches in Western Pennsylvania, including Sneeringer’s West Newton church, will present a broadcast of “I Stand Sunday,” a sermon at a Houston, Texas, church that will include speeches from several pastors, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Phil and Alan Robertson, stars of the reality TV show “Duck Dynasty.”

None of the pastors at the three churches that will carry the broadcast said they felt limited in what they can say or do.

“And I pray that we don’t,” said the Rev. Clarke Lauffer, pastor at Calvary Chapel of Westmoreland County in Greensburg. “The last thing you want to do is see pastors thrown in jail for preaching the Bible. I mean what parts of the Bible can I preach and what parts of the Bible can’t I preach?”

Lauffer and the other pastors said they don’t often make issues such as homosexuality or abortion the focal points of their sermons, but if the topics come up, they want to address them.

Helene Paharik of the Catholic Diocese’s Department for Human Life and Dignity said the contraceptive mandate doesn’t infringe on parishioners’ right to worship at local parishes but that it seeks to control how the church works in the community.

“Is freedom of religion the ability to worship within your four walls or is it the freedom to live your faith in the public square?” Paharik said. “For the church to be forced to pay for something that we don’t believe in … we really can’t do that.”

Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of religion and law at Duquesne University, said concern about religious freedom will dissipate as Americans become more comfortable with the issue of gay marriage and the universal health care law. He said groups on both sides of the issues are using the controversies for political ends.

“I don’t think there is an issue here,” Ledewitz said. “All this talk about threats and hate-crime legislation is completely fanciful.”

In May, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, adding the state to a growing list of those that allow gay marriage. Thirty-two states allow same-sex marriages, and decisions are pending in six more.

The Supreme Court in June ruled that Hobby Lobby and other closely held corporations can opt out of the contraceptive mandate on religious grounds. The ruling did not address the lawsuit by the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese. Attorneys will argue on Nov. 21 in Philadelphia to preserve the injunction.

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, head of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, an organization of about 150 Presbyterian congregations in Allegheny County, said not all Christians share the concerns of those participating in Sunday’s broadcast.

“It’s not even uniform across our denomination,” Sorge said. “We in the Presbyterian Church have a variety of opinions on the big questions of the day.”

The Presbyterian leadership in June redefined marriage as the union of two people, not a man and a woman, opening the door for same-sex marriages in the church. Sorge said the decision did not force churches to marry gay couples. Some churches in his organization do and some don’t.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].

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