By David Waters
A hate crimes bill has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate as early as this week. Conservative Christian leaders such as James Dobson, Pat Robertson and Donald Wildmon hate it.
In June, 60 religious conservatives signed a letter asking senators to filibuster the hate-crimes bill for fear it would “criminalize preaching the Gospel and put preachers in the cross-hairs.” Christian Right groups have been sounding the alarm ever since. “Hate Crimes Bill Threatens Free Speech,” warns the Christian Broadcasting Network. “Pastors could be prosecuted for preaching the biblical view of homosexuality,” intones Focus on the Family.
Even some conservative legislators agree: In an April speech on the floor of the House, Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana said he feared the legislation “could have a chilling effect on the religious expression and religious freedom of millions of Americans.”
Do they have a point? Not really. As we saw and heard during the last election cycle (think Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee), existing hate-crime laws for acts “committed on the basis of the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin” haven’t kept pastors or anyone else from expressing their biblical views. Why would that change when “sexual orientation” is added to the list?
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act seeks to expand federal hate-crime statutes to include protections for homosexuals. Conservative Christian opponents claim the legislation would (1) make it a crime to denounce homosexuality from the pulpit, and (2) give legal protection to pedophiles.
But as Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, told God in Government blogger Jacqueline L. Salmon: “I don’t think this legislation would in any way infringe on the freedom of people to state their views about homosexuality.”
First, the hate crimes bill clearly doesn’t allow prosecution to begin until an actual crime — a violent act — has been committed. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that bias or discrimination can only be considered when directly connected to a criminal act.
Second, the House version clearly states that “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.”
Third, the Senate version includes two even more specific speech protections:
(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.
Finally, while the bill does not define “sexual orientation,” the plain meaning — which judges rely on — of “sexual orientation” does not include incest or pedophilia. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, explicitly states that sexual orientation “refers to erotic attraction to males, females or both.” It does not include any of the paraphilias such as pedophilia.”
No doubt some conservative Christian opposition to the hate crimes bill is based on opposition to homosexuality, which they don’t see as discrimination. “The homosexual activists’ mantra is no longer tolerance — it’s embrace and promote,” said Ashley Horne, federal policy analyst at Focus on the Family Action. “Anything less will be silenced. Christians must speak up.”
As we saw and heard during the last election cycle (think Jeremiah Wright and John Hagee), existing hate-crime laws for acts “committed on the basis of the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin” haven’t kept pastors or anyone else from expressing their views. Why would that change when “sexual orientation” is added to the list?
Not all Christian leaders are opposed to the legislation. The Human Rights Campaign has a long list of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other religious organizations that support the new hate crimes bill.
“God’s love calls us to stand up against hate in our society,” said Thomas Hart, director of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations. “When that hate manifests itself in violent action, particularly against groups of people, we should do all we can to stop it.”
There might be valid legal or even constitutional arguments against laws that penalize people for committing crimes because of their discriminatory views. But shouldn’t people of faith oppose hate in all its forms, whether spoken or acted upon?