Yesterday, Dan posed a good question– if the Religious Right claims about hate crimes were true, wouldn’t we have heard about some state-level prosecutions for pastors preaching against homosexuality? After all, many states already have hate crimes laws on the books, including protections for actual or perceived sexual orientation.
For me, the facts of the matter– hate crimes laws are only used to prosecute perpetrators of violent crimes– seem sufficient. But since the Religious Right keeps circulating misinformation about hate crimes, let’s see how else we can convince those who claim hate crimes legislation “provides special penalties based on what people think, feel, or believe.”
How about this? Twenty-nine states already have hate crimes laws that address sexual orientation, including Kansas, home to Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay, anti-Semitic group that’s famous for its inflammatory pickets and in the headlines again today as they prepare to protest the funeral of a murdered priest. Any yet no one from Westboro has been brought up on hate crimes charges. As horrifying as Westboro’s messages are, the U.S. prides itself on the robust protection of free speech and religious liberties, and hate crimes laws don’t do anything to change that. In fact, the federal legislation signed yesterday explicitly protects those First Amendment rights.
Also, federal hate crimes legislation has applied to religious identity for quite some time. And some clergy have been preaching all the while that religions other than their own are falsehoods, heresies or cults — arguably denigrating believers of other faiths. And yet, to my knowledge, no pastor has been prosecuted for preaching, say, that nonbelievers or followers of other faiths will go to Hell.
Food for thought.
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Earlier today NPR posted an interactive online map that shows which US states have what types of hate crimes laws on their books. Some interesting findings:
- 44 states have hate crimes laws that protect against violence targeted toward race, ethnicity and religion.
- 29 states have hate crimes laws that protect against violence targeted toward sexual orientation.
- 11 states extend hate crime laws that protect against violence targeted toward gender identity.
So, I have to wonder — how many clergy in these states have been prosecuted for their speech in the pulpit? Seriously, I’d like to know. Because if we were to take the religious right at their word that hate crimes laws will lead to the silencing of clergy, such prosecutions would already be well under way in large swaths of the country. For more on what hate crimes laws really do and don’t do, see here, here and here.
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President Obama is preparing to sign legislation passed yesterday by the Senate that would make assaulting someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity a federal offense in the same vein of existing hate crimes legislation regarding racial and religious violence.
Recent political coverage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act – named for Matthew Shepard, a gay teen who was lynched in Wyoming in October 2008, and James Byrd, a black man who was lynched in Texas in June of the same year – has emphasized fervent (and misleading) objections of right-wing religious groups to the legislation. The Family Research Council has suggested, for instance, that “[w]hat ‘hate crimes’ legislation does is lay the legal foundation and framework for investigating, prosecuting and persecuting pastors, business owners, and anyone else whose actions reflect their faith.” (Again, it’s important to note that these attacks are false.)
But beyond the Religious Right, faith leaders have long championed the expansion of federal hate crimes penalties to include violence against gay and transgendered Americans. In renewed debate over the Matthew Shepard Act, FPL and diverse leaders in the faith community have sought to refute the dishonest rhetoric of religious right leaders.
Thanks in part to misinformation from the likes FRC and Focus on the Family, Congress rejected the late Sen. Kennedy’s repeated introductions of the Matthew Shepard Act from 2007 to the end of the Bush administration. But today welcomes justice, however delayed, to the victims of anti-gay violence, and to those who dare commit their hands to hatred.
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Hate crimes legislation is back on the radar, with Sen. Leahy’s introduction of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act as an amendment to the defense bill currently being debated in Congress and the religious right is once again responding with misinformation.
Family Research Council claims the bill will allow the “investigating, prosecuting and persecuting pastors, business owners, and anyone else who publicly affirms the teaching of scripture, or any other belief system, that homosexual behavior is immoral.” In an accompanying YouTube video, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) make similar false claims about what hate crimes legislation can–and is intended–to do.
As we’ve blogged about before, FRC’s claims simply aren’t true– hate crimes laws can only prosecute an individual who willfully inflicts bodily injury on an individual because of his or her actual or perceived identity. The bill has strong protections for religious liberty and our Constitution robustly supports free speech.
Meanwhile, Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink email this week claimed the vote on hate crimes “could pave the way for religious persecution,” another false claim. The only people who will be “persecuted” by this bill are those who physically injure or attempt to injure another person because of actual or perceived religion, sexual orientation, national origin, disability, etc. If anything, this bill is designed to prevent the persecution of individuals for their religious, or sexual, identity.
The Religious Right’s claims belie the facts… Not only does hate crimes legislation protect religious liberty and free speech, it’s sorely needed– hate crimes are on the rise and they violate the fundamental dignity of human beings, something all of us in the faith community should be concerned about.
UPDATE: Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good has released a statement of support for the passage of the hate crimes legislation, saying the bill is “consistent with fundamental American and religious values.” The statement also names other Catholics leaders who urge the passage of the bill, joining a growing chorus of faith leaders who have already spoken out in favor of hate crimes legislation. In April, a group of interfaith leaders spoke out in support before the House voted on hate crimes legislation and last month, religious leaders submitted testimony in support of the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
UPDATE #2: The Senate approved the measure Thursday night (July 16), including an amendment added by Sen. Brownback (R-KS) to affirm that this legislation will not tamper with the First Amendment right to free speech. Unfortunately, the Religious Right is still peddling false claims about the bill, even with the explicit amendment. For instance, an AP article cites the Christian Coalition of America as saying, “The bill could potentially imperil the free speech rights of Christians who choose to speak out against homosexuality — which could even be extended to preaching against it,” even though it is clear that the bill only extends to those who physically injure another person because of their actual or perceived identity.
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As legislation to expand hate crimes protection to include “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability” winds its way through Congress, fear-mongering on the right is continuing apace. CBN News reports that at this week’s Southern Baptist Convention, Chuck Colson is warning pastors that such a law could put them at risk of prosecution for preaching that homosexuality is sinful.
As we’ve stated before, the hate crimes expansion deals with acts of violence, not sermons, and it explicitly protects religious liberty and free speech (as does, not insignificantly, the Constitution). The specious speculation to the contrary — at the annual conference of America’s largest Protestant denomination, no less — presents an obstacle to needed protection, and it nurtures division. Thankfully, numerous denominations and faith leaders — from a range of faith traditions and with different perspectives on LGBT rights — support extending hate crimes protection and are speaking out for the cause. Hopefully their voices ring loudest when the Senate votes on hate crimes.
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