By Steve Gutow, Michel Kinnamon and Sayyid M. Syeed
The American experience of a pluralistic democracy is unique in the human story and the source of our nation’s strength. The unprecedented freedoms and opportunities that we enjoy make the United States the world’s most dynamic and diverse society. Many of our family members came from disparate parts of the globe to make America their home. Many sought a life free from the shackles of oppression. Many fled intolerance. For too many however, the promise of America has been tarnished by hate and bias. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the case of hate crimes. These horrific and degrading acts are anathema to the principles on which our country was founded. Our national hate crimes laws should be improved so they can to more effectively deter hate crimes and protect vulnerable populations.
As people of faith and as Americans committed to social justice, we know that hate crimes are message crimes. They send the message not only to the victim, but to entire communities that they are neither welcome nor safe. This impact is felt beyond political lines and geographic boundaries.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a crucially important piece of legislation. This bill would expand the definition of hate crimes to include crimes targeted at people on the basis of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability – categories not covered under current law. It would also remove restrictive provisions that allow federal action only if the hate crime victim was engaged in a narrow range of federally protected acts. Today, the Department of Justice is too often prevented from providing necessary assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. If local authorities are unwilling or unable to provide an effective investigation or prosecute these alarming crimes, it is critical that the federal government be empowered to assist local jurisdictions and independently pursue justice.
In too many cases, victims of a felonious hate crime witness their attacker’s offense reduced to a minor misdemeanor charge, resulting in a mere slap on the wrist with no prison time. And far too often, local law enforcement officials lack the ability to prosecute hate crimes as hate crimes, even when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests the crime was motivated solely by bias against a group in which the victim is believed to belong. Violent hate crimes create fear among members of a particular group in our society, something that no American deserves.
Take, for instance, the murder of 18-year old Scotty Joe Weaver. In 2004, he was robbed, beaten, stabbed, strangled, partially decapitated, and set on fire in a manner described by the local prosecutor as being “suggestive of overkill, which is not something you see in a regular robbery and murder.” The Alabama District Attorney added that there was “no doubt in my mind” the murder was motivated by Weaver’s sexual orientation. However, because of the structure of Alabama’s law, this act could not be tried as hate crime. In 2003, Billy Ray Johnson, a mentally disabled man, was ridiculed, assaulted and left for dead on a desolate country road in Texas. Johnson’s assailants received only misdemeanor charges. In both cases, the federal government was prevented from investigating and prosecuting these horrific crimes. It’s no surprise that virtually every major law enforcement organization in the country and ** state attorneys general support the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
A nation’s laws are a reflection of its social contract with all of its citizens. Effective enforcement of strong laws addressing crimes based on prejudice will send a powerful message. Hate-based violence is an anathema to the principles of freedom and equality which form the cornerstone of our American democracy. Now we have a historic opportunity to make this legislation law. We need to build a society, government, and justice system that reflect our best values – freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, and justice.
Rabbi Steve Gutow is the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rev. Dr. Michel Kinnamon is the general secretary of the National Council of Churches; and Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed is the national director of the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances for the Islamic Society of North America.