Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr . Hate Crimes Protection Act

Tonight the Senate voted for a conference report for the nation's defense appropriations bill that includes a provision extending hate crime protections to the disabled and sexual minorities. Five Republicans - Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and outgoing Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, voted for the bill. The bill now heads to the president's desk, allowing him to fulfill the first of several promises he made to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. President Obama said he would sign a hate crimes bill into law.

As it stands, the federal government may investigate crimes committed against those who are victimized on account of their perceived race, ethnicity, religion or gender if but only if they were engaged in a federally protected activity. Sentencing for those who are convicted of a bias-motivated assault with a deadly weapon can be higher than those who are convicted of any other assault with a deadly weapon. Supporters justify the enhanced sentencing guidelines by noting how these crimes may have a greater impact on those living in the neighborhood. Any and every gay American will fear for their welfare when confronted with the news of another gay person's demise.

The Act, which was named for a Wyoming college student who was beaten to death 11 years ago, and an African American who was dragged to his death by a pickup truck, builds upon laws already on the book in three important ways.

First, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act adds three new categories - sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability - to the list of protected categories warranting federal intervention.

Second, the Act requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect data relating to bias-motivated crimes perpetrated against transgendered victims, paving the way for their future inclusion at some future point.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it lifts the restrictions on the federal government's involvement so that it can investigate crimes which state and local authorities either choose not to or cannot afford to investigate, whether the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity or not.

Religious conservatives say this bill could (and will) be used to silence Christians who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds. "Hate crime laws force the court to guess the thoughts and beliefs which lie behind a crime," Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council said in his written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. ""Hate crime" laws put the perpetrator's thoughts and beliefs on trial. Hate crime laws are tantamount to federally prosecuting "thought crimes." The Family Research Council believes that all crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and that every violent crime has some form of hate behind it." Mr. Perkins notes that some pastors have been threatened by prosecution for violating hate speech laws in Western Europe and Canada.

The incidents which Mr. Perkins refers to have no bearing on the hate crimes statute which the president said he would sign in the near future. Those priests and ministers were cited for hate speech violations in countries where free speech isn't valued as strongly as it is valued in this country. The hate crime statute that will head to the president's desk does not outlaw speech. No priest can be tried for condemning homosexual conduct, whether it is done on a tv program or at the altar. A priest, minister, rabbi, or imam can, however, be tried for robbing, killing, or otherwise beating a person, whether he or she is gay or not and if, during the assault, the priest calls him a "sodomite" or a "faggot" the new act allows the federal government to try the priest for a hate crime.

Those who seriously fear for their free speech rights should look at how the law or laws like it has been applied to religious minorities and women. Like the homosexual, a feminist does not adhere to the evangelical preacher's code. The minister might, on occasion, condemn the woman who does not seek fulfillment in the home, raising the kids. An evangelical who fears that his anti-gay preaching can be used against him if and when he verbally accosts and then beats a gay man should in theory, fear that his anti-feminist preaching can be used against him if and when he verbally accosts and then beats a career-oriented woman. That same evangelical priest should, i theory, fear that his prior anti-Jewish (only Christians can be saved) or anti-Muslim rantings could be used against him.

Do they fear for their speech rights in these other, equally plausible scenarios? No. Of course not. Hate crimes are rarely prosecuted as such and to the extent that they are they've had no bearing on a priest or minister's ability to condemn homosexual conduct. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Texas have passed hate crime statutes that include sexual orientation among their listed categories and yet priests and ministers in each of those states still preach against homosexuality.

I believe this failure to stifle anti-gay preaching can be attributed in part to the average minister's belief that he or she won't assault, maim, or kill a fellow human being. The minister, priest, rabbi, and imam who opposes gay rights should have no reason to fear criminal prosecution unless he or she plans to, let's say, bash any gay entering or leaving a gay establishment in the head with a baseball bat.

The president said he would sign this bill should it reach his desk. He should fulfill that promise quickly, and then move on to the other promises he made to the GLBT community on the campaign trail.

No comments: