Lying About The Hate Crime Bill, #2: “A Danger To Religious Freedom”
July 16th, 2009
Among the many claims of opponents to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R.1913) — known in the Senate as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S.909) — is the contention that this bill represents a danger to religious freedoms. The proposed legislation would expand the already existing federal hate crime law to include violent crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and/or disability. The current law already covers actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color and religion. This is very important to remember because it makes the “danger to religious freedom” argument particularly illogical.
That argument, as promulgated by anti-gay activists, insists that the proposed hate crimes prevention act will effectively criminalize religious objections to homosexuality and will “muzzle” pastors. Here’s how the Family Research Council recently put it:
Let’s say you preach from Genesis 19 or Romans 1, referencing the homosexual agenda or lifestyle. Your sermon could be heard by an individual who applies it in a way prohibited by a hate crimes law. Not only would the offender be prosecuted under this law, but you could also be prosecuted for conspiracy. Consequently, hate crimes laws would radically impact our freedom of speech as Christians.
Matt Barber puts it this way:
This creates both a sociopolitical and legal environment wherein traditional sexual morality officially becomes the new racism. Those who publically [sic] express medical, moral or religious opposition to the homosexual lifestyle are tagged by the government as “homophobic bigots” to be treated no differently by law enforcement, the courts or larger society than the KKK or neo-Nazis.
Barber’s warning is particularly relevant. What would happen if “homophobic bigots” were treated exactly the same as the KKK or neo-Nazis?
Well, to answer that, we could well ask how does the current hate crimes law treat the KKK and neo-Nazis?
The federal hate crime law already protects against crimes motivated by hatred of religious groups, but that didn’t keep neo-Nazis from winning the right to march in predominantly Jewish Skokie, Illinois (with the ACLU’s help, I might add). The current hate crime law also protects against crimes motivated by racial hatred, but that didn’t stop the KKK from marching and shouting slogans in Cleveland (again with the ACLU’s help). Hate groups have rallied at state houses in Minnesota, Nebraska and South Carolina, In fact, White Supremacist groups have held nearly a hundred rallies, demonstrations and meetings across America in this year alone — and the existing hate crime law at both the state and federal level have deterred none of it. And yes, they’ve even protested gay pride parades as well, something that they have in common with more than a few conservative Christian groups.
Extremist hate groups are also free to practice their hate speech, including when they do so under the guise of religious belief. There are some three dozen racist Christian Identity groups active in America right now. Some even operate radio broadcasts and “prison ministries.” One such “pastor,” James Wickstrom, argued that Jews should be beaten, thrown into a wood chipper, and “give them the holocaust they rightly deserve.” This, even though current hate crime laws already protect on the basis of religion.
Now if “pastor” Wickstrom can say something as offensive and dangerous as that with the existing hate crime laws in place under the guise of his religious beliefs, then there’s nothing that Matt Barber can say now that can’t be said should the Matthew Shepard bill become law. And that’s because the First Amendment to our constitution provides a pretty ironclad guarantee of freedoms of speech and of religion:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
And under that Ironclad guarantee of freedom of speech and religion, some pretty unsavory groups have freely spouted their unsavory beliefs. Our First Amendment protects our right to say pretty much anything we want, no matter how ugly, hateful, or factually wrong we may be. And no law — not even this proposed hate crimes law — can get in the way of that.
But that’s not what opponents to the hate crimes bill would have you believe:
If we do not act decisively at this time, S.909 will make illegal every word in the Bible describing the destruction wrought by this vile behavior, and prepare the way for total censorship of the Gospel of Christ. Our children will pay a horrible price for our cowardice.” Rev. Flip Benham, National Director, Operation Rescue/Operation Save America
But S.909, the senate version of the bill, won’t make illegal any words whatsoever, because it only expands the current hate crimes law to cover sexual orientation. And the current hate crimes law doesn’t make illegal any words either. And in case there’s any confusion about this, the version of the Matthew Shepard act which passed the House says so specifically:
Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by, the Constitution.
And the Senate version is even more expansive in its assurances:
(3) CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit any constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct or activities (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), including the exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and peaceful picketing or demonstration. The Constitution does not protect speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence.
(4) FREE EXPRESSION- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to allow prosecution based solely upon an individual’s expression of racial, religious, political, or other beliefs or solely upon an individual’s membership in a group advocating or espousing such beliefs.
Now notice what I just did. I linked directly to both the House and Senate versions of the act so you can read it for yourself. Ever wonder why our opponents won’t do the same when they make these outlandish claims?
But What About Pastors in Sweden, Britain and Canada?
Anti-gay opponents often bring up examples from other countries, claiming that what can happen over there can happen here. Focus On the Family has a so-called “Facts Sheet” which claims (PDF: 44KB/2 pages):
In Sweden, Canada and Great Britain, “hate crimes” laws have been used to prosecute Christians speaking their disapproval of homosexual behavior, posing a serious threat to religious liberty and free speech.
Don’t believe it? Just Just ask Pastor Ake Green who was charged and sentenced on June 29, 2004 to one month in jail for showing “disrespect” against homosexuals because of a grace and truth filled sermon delivered in Borgholm, Sweden on July 20, 2003 . Thanks to the efforts of our friends at ADF, that sentence was overturned on appeal, but you can see what a chilling effect that hate crimes laws would have on the freedom of speech and religion.
But Sweden’s example simply doesn’t apply here. Sweden has a hate speech law that goes back to 1948, when it was originally written in response to the Holocaust. Laws which limit hate speech are quite common in many European countries. But that’s because their constitutions allow such laws to exist. Ours doesn’t. Swedish journalist Tor Billgren, who writes the blog Antigayretorik, reminds us that no preacher has been fined or jailed for quoting the Bible:
Pastor Åke Green was sentenced to 1 month imprisonment by the district court, but was acquitted by the court of appeal and the supreme court. He wasn’t jailed. There’s another case as well: Leif Liljeström, a Christian (not a preacher) who owned a discussion forum on the web. He was sentenced to 1 month for things another person wrote on the forum (according to the Swedish law the owner of the forum is responsible). However, this wasn’t quotes from the Bible, but extreme hate speech. This case will be dealt with by the Supreme Court. He hasn’t been jailed.
Britain is often cited as another example by anti-gay activists. But the U.K. has no written constitution, nor does it have a Bill of Rights like ours which enumerates inviolable rights among its citizenry. (If I remember, that was one of the sore points between us more than two hundred years ago.) Consequently, Britain has a long history of banning all sorts of speech. As recently as 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government banned the broadcast of all appearances and interviews of members of Sinn Fein and the IRA. (According to the BBC, “instead of hearing Gerry Adams, viewers and listeners would hear an actor’s voice reading a transcript of the Sinn Fein leader’s words.”) You just try to get that past our Constitution here.
Canada also has a hate speech law. Bill C-250 criminalizes certain types of hate speech towards persons of any sexual orientation: homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals. In other words, it protects everyone equally. But there is a clause which specifically exempts religiously motivated speech. In other words, religious freedom always trumps hate speech in Canada according to this particular law. But again, Canada’s constitution does not prohibit curbs on speech the way the American constitution does.
But What About the “Philadelphia Eleven”?
But some claim that just such a curb on freedom of speech has actually happened here:
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer claims the legislation “does not affect free speech or punish beliefs or thoughts. It only seeks to punish violent acts.” But Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, says Hoyer is ignoring the case of eleven Christians in Philadelphia who were charged with hate crimes for sharing Scripture verses at a homosexual pride rally.
“Ask the Philadelphia 11. We know what these supposed ‘hate crime’ laws are meant to do. In Philadelphia, Christians were arrested and jailed based on hate crime law,” she points out. “So we know that what the other side is saying — that it will not affect pastors or youth pastors or Christians — we know that is not true.”
Philadelphia organizers, participants, and police were willing to tolerate the signs and taunts from a group of Repent America protesters when they remained at the edge of the event’s grounds. But then those protesters pushed their way onto the festival grounds to try to forcibly disrupt the event, they were surrounded by Outfest supporters armed with pink whistles and eight-foot-tall pink-colored boards mounted on sticks.
Repent America, who didn’t have a permit for their gathering, was trying to disrupt an OutFest rally which did have a valid permit. So police were called, and they instructed the demonstrators to go back out to the the edge of the Outfest area. The demonstrators ignored three separate orders to move. When they were told by police they would be arrested if they refused to move, they sat down, forcing the police to arrest them.
Prosecutors charged the protesters with violating several laws including the state’s hate crime law. But the court dismissed those charges, calling them an infringement on the protester’s First Amendment rights.That’s right. Just like with with the Klan and the neo-Nazis, Repent America’s actions were protected by the First Amendment.
This may be a case of overzealous prosecutors misapplying the law. But that doesn’t mean the law itself is flawed. We’ve had cases where overzealous prosecutors have pinned far worse charges on innocent people. Some have even ended up on death row for wrongful murder convictions. The answer to that problem isn’t the elimination of laws against murder, but to ensure that everyone has a speedy and fair trial — which is another of our cherished constitutionally protected rights.
And in this particular case, the problem wasn’t with the police who removed Repent America from OutFest; it was with the prosecutor’s decision to charge them under the state’s hate crimes law. In fact, when Repent America tried to sue the city of Philadelphia for wrongful arrest, that court ruled that the police acted properly. It was Repent America’s disruptive actions which led to their arrests, not the content of their speech.
Those who claim that the proposed hate crimes bill is a danger to free speech or religious freedoms need to not only dust off their copy of the Bill of Rights, but also look around at what a lot of people are already getting by with under the current hate crime law. Even if Repent America, Focus On the Family, or the American Family Association were to wind up in the same classy company of the KKK and neo-Nazis as Matt Barber fears, they will still be free to say whatever they damn well please.
— Lying About The Hate Crime Bill, #2: “A Danger To Religious Freedom”
— Lying About The Hate Crime Bill, #1: “The Thirty Sexual Orientations”