Christian Right groups across America say a hate crimes bill will send righteous pastors to prison.
They sure sound like they know what they're talking about.
"A bill now before Congress (H.R. 1592/ S. 1105) would criminalize negative comments concerning homosexuality, such as calling the practice of homosexuality a sin from the pulpit, a 'hate crime' punishable by a hefty fine and time in prison," says the American Family Association's "Petition to Congress in Defense of Religious Freedom."
"We must stop it before they send your grandma, your pastor, or you to jail for sharing your faith," Faith2Action President Janet Folger writes in an April 18, 2007, press release.
"The proposed law would make it a crime to preach on Romans Chapter 1 or I Corinthians Chapter 6," adds a June 14, 2007, "action alert" from the American Family Association. "Or even to discuss them in a Sunday School class."
There's just one thing. Every one of these statements is completely false.
These and other similarly outlandish claims by an array of far-right Christian fundamentalist groups are designed to incite their members to oppose a proposed amendment to the current federal hate crimes law. But it's obvious that these groups never consulted an actual lawyer — at least not one who knew anything about law.
The truth is that the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLECHPA), which overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2007 and is currently pending in the Senate, would simply amend our current federal hate crime act to add protection to victims who are violently attacked on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Currently, federal law protects only victims of violence that was motivated by race, color, religion, or national origin. The current law excludes the 15.5% of hate crimes that FBI statistics suggest are based on sexual orientation and the untracked percentage of hate crimes based on gender, gender identity, and disability. The bill also would remove a huge jurisdictional barrier — the requirement that the Justice Department prove that the victim was attacked while engaging in a federally protected activity, such as voting.
Nearly 1,400 ministers of all faiths have signed a letter of support for the bill. The bill is also supported by 26 state attorneys general and over 280 national law enforcement, professional, educational, civil rights, religious, and civic organizations, including the National District Attorneys Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Sheriffs' Association.
Contrary to the claims of right-wing groups like the American Family Association that the bill would "criminalize thoughts," the bill only applies in cases where a victim was physically attacked or the subject of an attempted attack. It does not "criminalize negative comments concerning homosexuality." It would not make calling the practice of homosexuality a sin from the pulpit a "hate crime" punishable by "a hefty fine and time in prison." It would not "send your grandma, your pastor, or you to jail for sharing your faith." Here's what the bill actually says:
Sec. 6: (A) IN GENERAL — Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law … willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person—
(i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and
(ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, fined in accordance with this title, or both, if—
(I) death results from the offense; or
(II) the offense includes kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.
The bill also contains an explicit provision making it clear that the First Amendment rights of those who oppose homosexuality would be protected:
Sec. 8: 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 free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Despite the clear wording of the bill, the American Family Association (AFA) warns that a minister could be prosecuted for preaching against sexual relations outside of marriage if someone in the congregation heard the sermon, committed an act of violence, and then claimed the minister's sermon inspired him to do it. In addition to being an obvious distortion of the proposed law, the AFA's warning ignores the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that even speech advocating criminal conduct — and the minister's speech in the AFA's example was not — is protected by the First Amendment, unless the speech is intended to incite "imminent lawless action."
To further ensure that the First Amendment rights of those who oppose homosexuality are fully protected, the bill even contains a special "Rule of Evidence" section providing that "evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense." The special rule is more protective of freedom of expression than the general federal rules of evidence.
The outrageous claims of the American Family Association and other groups that the LLECHPA is "dangerous legislation [that] would take away your freedom of speech and your freedom of religion" are nothing more than false demagoguery and fearmongering. As groups that allegedly promote morality, one would expect they would have more allegiance to the truth.