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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Last week’s tragic shooting at the Holocaust Museum shocked the nation. This terrible act of hatred not only took a life, but also nudged us to look more deeply at the growing prevalence of crimes motivated by hate, fear, and bias.
Multiple hate crimes in the past years have made the news. There was the horrific shooting at a Unitarian Universalist church (the shooter targeted the congregation for its liberal views) and the murder of a Jewish college student at Wesleyan, by a shooter with anti-Semitic views. At the end of May, a Mexican-American and his nine-year-old daughter were killed in a home invasion by suspects tied to anti-immigrant militia white supremacy groups. The murder of Dr. George Tiller because of his occupation as a late-term abortion provider was an act of hate against the pro-choice community. The brutal murder of Angie Zapata was an act of hate against the transgendered community, and part of a frightening 63% increase in serial hate crime incidents in Colorado in 2008.
The anecdotes are chilling, and the statistics aren’t any better. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups and hate crimes, reported that the number of hate groups have risen by more than 50% since 2000. Additionally, the number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people killed in bias-motivated incidents increased by 28 percent in 2008 compared to 2007 and are at the highest level since 1999, according to a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Latinos are being targeted in increasing numbers too– the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights finds that for the fourth year in a row, the number of reported crimes directed against Hispanics increased — from 576 in 2006 to 595 in 2007.
Religious leaders from across the spectrum joined their voices to condemn the hatred and violence behind the shooting at the Holocaust Museum. Similarly, many in the faith community have spoken out in support of strong hate crimes legislation. As David Gushee has said, “As a Christian, I believe in the immeasurable and sacred worth of every human being as made in the image of God and as the object of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ… This bill deserves Christian support because its aim is to protect the dignity and basic human rights of all Americans, and especially those Americans whose perceived ‘differentness’ makes them vulnerable to physical attacks motivated by bias, hatred and fear.”
Voices like this are ever more needed in this climate of hostility, fear, and hatred. As people of faith, we’re called to stand against injustices like these. Particularly because many of these crimes are religiously-motivated, we must present a different religious vision– one in which all people’s inviolable worth is recognized and no one lives in fear because of his or her identity or connection to a specific community. Furthermore, we must also acknowledge that hate speech often leads to these acts of violence. As Americans, we treasure our robust First Amendment rights to free speech. As Jim Wallis says, “Government censorship and the abridgment of [free speech] rights is not the answer to hate speech.” But a societal, and especially a religious, response must be unambiguously clear– hatred is not consistent with our faith traditions. Jim goes on to say that, “Societal censorship, public outcry, and condemnation of these words is what’s necessary.” People of faith must step up and condemn hate-filled rhetoric and work for a world in which no human being lives in fear.
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Pro-choice and pro-life leaders who work to build common ground on abortion have released a statement condemning the murder of Dr. George Tiller and reiterating their commitment to civility and common ground.
Just hours later, at a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court anti-abortion leaders led by the Christian Defense Coalition condemned the murder, called on President Obama and Congressional leaders not to use it “for political gain,” and then proceeded to use the platform provided by the abhorrent attack to misrepresent Pres. Obama’s record on abortion and otherwise spread misinformation about the issue.
Rev. Patrick Mahoney, director of the coalition, claimed that the administration is dismantling conscience protections for healthcare providers who refuse to perform abortions on moral grounds. This is false. In February the administration initiated a review of the broad, last-minute conscience clause Pres. Bush put in place before leaving office. Although the outcome is still pending, three separate federal laws protect — and will continue to protect — medical professionals who do not wish to perform abortion procedures for religious or moral reasons.
Rev. Mahoney also claimed that the administration supports late-term abortions and “partial-birth abortion.” This claim too is false. Pres. Obama has stated his support for restrictions on these procedures if there are protections for the health of the mother. He has also stated that his votes in opposition to legislation restricting the late-term abortion were based on a lack of such protections.
Speakers at the press conference also misleadingly repeatedly referenced a recent Gallup poll which found that a majority of Americans consider themselves pro-life. Rev. Mahoney said the poll showed that the majority of Americans reject appointing a judge who would uphold Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court. The Gallup poll actually showed that 51% of Americans consider themselves “pro-life” — not that a majority of Americans oppose appointing a Supreme Court Justice who would uphold Roe. In fact, polling consistently shows that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. Several analyses have shown the Gallup poll to a) be an outlier, b) not pertinent to the legality of abortion, and c) so vague that it means little at all.
The anti-abortion leaders who spoke at the Supreme Court this morning could have condemned the murder of George Tiller and reiterated their opposition to abortion without politicizing the tragedy and making misleading claims for political gain — a maneuver they claim to denounce.
Now more than ever, we must all come together to recognize our shared humanity and find common ground. That’s what Americans really want out of our leaders.
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