At first glance, hate-crime laws may seem unnecessary. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
“Equal protection” should mean equal protection afforded to equal citizens. Hate-crime laws seem to make crimes against some citizens worse than the same crimes committed against other citizens. After the House passed H.R. 1952, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council argued that “the actions of a majority of the House today undermine the promise of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
But all citizens are not equal. Gay Americans cannot legally marry (except in Massachusetts), nor can they serve openly in the military. And in more than a few jurisdictions they can still be denied housing or employment because of their sexual orientation. Moreover, as Eric Zorn pointed out in a Chicago Tribune piece, a case can be made for a hate-crime being two crimes:
“The simplest answer to this is that when hatred for a particular group or class or race is the obvious motive for an attack, that attack becomes, in effect, two crimes. The first is the offense itself. The second is the implicit threat that offense makes to other members of that group, class or race."
“That second crime has new victims."
“Consider an incident in which someone uses spray paint to deface the garage of a house into which a gay family has just moved."
“The crime is vandalism, no matter what. But to argue against the idea of hate crimes is to argue that it shouldn’t matter at all to the law whether the graffiti is a smiley face or some hostile, anti-gay slur."
“The smiley face is a petty annoyance. The hateful slogan is, in effect, a threat to other gay people in the area – they might be next.
“Is it fair to limit hate-crime protection to certain classes of people? My argument is yes, that historical and cultural contexts cause certain classes of people to feel legitimately threatened by hate-inspired crimes that do not really threaten other classes of people.”
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The current federal hate-crime law applies to violent crimes committed due to the victim’s race, color, national origin, or religion. It’s highly doubtful any of those currently “protected” by this law would advocate its repeal. It’s highly likely they’d argue such “protection” is not only needed but deserved for reasons Mr. Zorn noted.
Then along came H.R. 1952, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007. It added sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability to the federal hate-crime law.
According to the FBI, every day twenty-five Americans are victims of hate crimes. One in six of those hate crimes is motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation. As for what Mr. Zorn called “historical and cultural contexts,” homosexuals have consistently been demeaned, denigrated and discriminated against.
During the McCarthy era more homosexuals were “weeded out” and fired than Communists. Gays were regularly barred from taverns and restaurants, barred from public assembly, barred from using the U.S. Postal Service to send newsletters. In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order barring homosexuals from government jobs as well as many from other forms of employment. Homosexuals had no freedom of assembly or speech and could be arrested on simple suspicion – behaviors such as “gesturing with limp wrists,” walking “with a sway to the hips,” and “wearing tight fitting trousers” – and sent to mental hospitals until “cured,” despite claims by prison doctors that “cures” were not possible.
H.R. 1952 – also known as the Matthew Shepard Act – had broad public and bipartisan support, including 73 percent of the American people and more than 210 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations. Similar legislation had previously passed both houses of Congress, but was ultimately derailed by the then Republican leadership as they cowered to the dictates of religion-based lobby groups.
As soon as it was reintroduced into the current Congressional session, the rabidly anti-gay Christian Right once again flew into a tizzy. As the bill’s passage became more and more certain, they launched a hysterical campaign against it. Apparently sacrificing the disabled was a small price to pay in order to keep gays excluded.
Aside from blatant lies – so unbecoming for “Christian” leaders – they also resorted to tactics such as distributing doctored Congressional testimony, a Jesus Christ “wanted poster,” and promoting a video produced by a known white-supremacist – “John Smith” – whose other titles include Keep America White and Black Intelligence.
Dominionist leaders of the Christian Right – men like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Louis Sheldon of Traditional Values Coalition, Don Wildmon of American Family Association, Tony Perkins of Family Research Council – screeched in unison that H.R. 1952 would put pastors at risk and target evangelicals if they preached against homosexuality and argued that gay Americans did not deserve equal civil rights. On 26 April 2007, Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition – the “high minded” group that distributed the Jesus “wanted poster” and a comic titled “Congress Declares April Drag Queen Month” – sent out an action alert. The subject line read “Pastors Protect Yourself from Jail – Distribute this Alert.”
The Christian Right’s campaign was based solely on lies and deceitful scare tactics.
The title of the bill exposed that: “Hate Crimes.” H.R. 1952, like the existing hate-crime law, would apply only to acts of violence after they’d been committed. Pulpit pastors and the self-righteous would still be able to exercise their freedom of speech and say things like “Homosexuality is sinful,” “Homosexuality is an abomination to God” and yes, even invoke Westboro Baptist Church’s mantras “God hates fags” and “Fags die, God laughs.” That’s their Constitutional right, just as others have the right to say the leaders of the Christian Right are malignant bigots who hide behind a twisted version of religion in order to promote discrimination and enhance their own political power.
The Christian Right claims homosexuality is nothing more than a choice – unlike race, color, and national origin – and those practicing the “lifestyle” should not, therefore, be protected. Their claim is based on no legitimate scientific or medical facts. Indeed, virtually all credible research points to homosexuality being outside the realm of choice.
But what is an indisputable fact is that one’s religion is absolutely 100 percent a choice. Would Dobson, Sheldon, Wildmon, and Perkins support removing “religion” from the wording of the current federal hate-crime law?
In the days to come the Christian Right will, no doubt, be busy lobbying the Senate to kill H.R. 1952 and launching campaigns to bolster the president’s will to veto the bill should it clear the Senate. The Bush administration is, of course, encouraging and patronizing them with it announcement of a probable veto: “If H.R. 1592 were presented to the President, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”
Whatever the ultimate fate of H.R. 1952, it’s already served a purpose. It’s exposed – yet again – the leaders of the Christian Right and their organizations for what they are: liars and bigots hiding behind a bastardized form of “religion.”
Fortunately, true Christians are speaking up and acting:
“The nondenominational group Faith in America today announced the launch of a five-city ‘Call to Courage’ campaign to educate Americans about what it calls the misuse of religious teachings to discriminate and isolate LGBT people. …"
“‘We’re asking Americans to be courageous and to join us in a stand against discrimination in all forms. As a nation, we have exhibited such courage in the past by rejecting the use of religion to sanction slavery and the subjugation of women,’ said Mitchell Gold, founder of Faith In America…"
“This campaign is a first step toward putting an end to bigotry disguised as religious truth and creating a just world where everyone will be allowed to flourish in America without prejudice.” [link added]
Faith in America is right. What’s needed is for more fair-minded Americans to find the courage to stand up to bigots and those who use tainted religion to justify and promote discrimination for their own sinister political purposes. Until that happens, and until all Americans enjoy equal civil rights – including the right to marry and serve in the military – the Fourteenth Amendment’s promise of “equal protection” is hollow.
Hate-crime laws should not be needed, but for the time being, they are necessary.
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