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U.S. hate crime bills/laws

2009 hate-crimes bill:
H.R. 1913: A general overview

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The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (H.R. 1913)

Representative John Conyers (D-MI) introduced the bill to the federal House on 2009-APR-02. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration. It is titled: "Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009."

It is popularly known as the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Matthew Shepard was a male gay university student who was pistol-whipped, tortured and assassinated by crucifixion in Wyoming during 1998 apparently because of his sexual orientation. Some suggest that he was killed during a simple mugging. However, muggers don't usually torture and kill the people that they target. What they did to Shepard was motivated by pure hatred.

It is the latest in a series of similar bills, dating back to the late 1990s. None of them have become law.

The bill states that Congress has made a number of findings:

"The incidence of violence motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim poses a serious national problem."

"Such violence disrupts the tranquility and safety of communities and is deeply divisive." 1

What does the law do:

An existing federal hate crime legislation, passed in 1969, is very narrowly based. It only applies if the victim of a violent crime is engaged in one of six federally protected activities, and then only:
 
bullet

If the perpetrator is found guilty of the crime, and
 

bullet

If it can be shown that the crime was motivated by a hatred of the victim's race, color, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.

If both can be proven, then the perpetrator is given a higher than usual sentence.

The 1969 law covers hate crimes motivated by one or more of the above four factors. However, it did not extend to other categories:
bullet

Women and men who are physically attacked because of their gender.

bullet

Heterosexuals, homosexuals, and bisexuals who are attacked because of their sexual orientation.

bullet

Cisgendered persons, transsexuals, and transgender persons who are attacked because of their gender identity. ("Gender identity" is the gender that a person perceives themselves to be. The vast majority of adults are cisgendered: their perceived and genetic gender match. However, transgender persons often describe themselves as having a brain of one gender trapped in an opposite-gendered body.)

bullet

Able-bodied and disabled persons who are attacked because of their ability/disability status.

The proposed law extends coverage to include these four additional categories: gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.

Unfortunately, through selective reporting, many conservative news sources imply that the law only protects homosexuals. In fact, it covers everyone, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Also, as noted above, it protects both men and women, persons of all sexual identities, and of all degrees of disability. Every American would be protected in a total of eight ways.

Common conservative opinion: Hate crimes should be treated the same:

Many religious and social conservative information sources suggest that crimes of violence should be treated identically. No matter what the motivation, all physical attacks of a given severity, duration and injury should be treated equally. If a person is found guilty, they should be sentenced according to those three factors, irrespective of their motivation at the time of the crime. Their thoughts, biases and hatreds simply do not matter. Only their actions should be of concern to the law.

It does not matter whether the perpetrator:
bulletSimply wanted money and attacked the next person that walked down the street, or
bulletHated the victim as an individual for some reason, or
bulletHated everyone who shares the race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or some other aspect of the victim.

Two fundamental principles of law in America are that people should be treated equally, and everyone has freedom of thought. If we give perpetrators different sentences based on their motivation, then we are not treating all criminals equally, and we are giving extra punishment to people because of their thoughts and beliefs.

Two individuals who oppose hate-crime laws in principle are:
 
bulletRep. Steve King, (R-Iowa). On 2009-APR-29, he said:

"Under this legislation, justice will no longer be equal. Instead, justice will depend on the protected status of the victim, setting up different penalties for the same crime. ... I support continuing the American tradition of equal justice under the law, and I oppose this unconstitutional 'thought crimes' bill." 2

His statement is somewhat confusing because every victim of a violent act motivated by hate will be treated equally. If the physical assault was motivated by hatred of the victim's apparent sexual orientation, then heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual victims will be treated equally. That is, everyone will have the same "protected status." Similarly the law would protect the victim of a physical attack that is gender motivated whether the victim is female, male or inter-sexual. And so on for assaults motivated by hatred based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or degree of disability.

bulletShawn D. Akers, law professor at Liberty University, said:

"Because penalties already exist for those who commit criminal acts, HR 1913 serves only to punish individuals for the beliefs, opinions, or convictions held at the time an act is committed. As such, HR 1913 does not punish criminal intent, but criminalizes thought." 3

Common liberal opinion: Hate crimes should be treated differently:

Many religious and social liberals think differently. They differentiate between "ordinary" violent crimes and violent crimes motivated by hatred.

In both cases, the immediate victims and their families and friends are distressed or devastated by the violence. But violent crimes that are motivated by hatred of a group are in a special category. They are essentially terrorist acts. The perpetrator is not only attacking a person, they are attempting to terrorize an entire community that shares some trait that caused the victim to be selected.

A white supremacist who attacks an African American because the victim is regarded as being from a "mud" race is attempting to terrorize the entire Black community. A violent homophobe attacking a gay or lesbian person may be perceived by the entire lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual/transgender community (GLBT) as a terrorist.

According to Wikipedia:

"The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that penalty-enhancement hate crime statutes do not conflict with free speech rights because they do not punish an individual for exercising freedom of expression; rather, they allow courts to consider motive when sentencing a criminal for conduct which is not protected by the First Amendment." 4

"When it enacted the Hate Crimes Act of 2000, the New York State Legislature found that:

'Hate crimes do more than threaten the safety and welfare of all citizens. They inflict on victims incalculable physical and emotional damage and tear at the very fabric of free society. Crimes motivated by invidious hatred toward particular groups not only harm individual victims but send a powerful message of intolerance and discrimination to all members of the group to which the victim belongs. Hate crimes can and do intimidate and disrupt entire communities and vitiate the civility that is essential to healthy democratic processes. In a democratic society, citizens cannot be required to approve of the beliefs and practices of others, but must never commit criminal acts on account of them. Current law does not adequately recognize the harm to public order and individual safety that hate crimes cause. Therefore, our laws must be strengthened to provide clear recognition of the gravity of hate crimes and the compelling importance of preventing their recurrence. Accordingly, the legislature finds and declares that hate crimes should be prosecuted and punished with appropriate severity'." 5

More details on this topic.

Freedom of speech concerns of some conservatives:

In previous years, past versions of this bill were attacked because they were perceived as giving special privileges to gays and lesbians. This charge is also directed at the 2009 bill, but has not as been as prominent as in previous years. This may be because the public has become aware that the bill would protect everyone equally and in multiple ways: heterosexuals, homosexuals and bisexuals; women and men; able bodied and the disabled; etc.

However, religious and social conservative websites and news sources have been extremely effective in convincing their readers that if the hate crimes act becomes law, it would lead to the prosecution of clergy who merely preach that the Bible condemns homosexuality. Some sources have even said that if a pastor were merely to read a biblical verse like Leviticus 20:13, she or he might be charged with a hate crime. (That verse defines some male homosexual behavior among the ancient Hebrews to be a capital crime, and requires the execution of both parties. The verse is ambiguous as to what type of same-sex behavior is involved.)

Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters said in a interview during 2009-FEB with Broadcasting and Cable:

"When our members preach and teach from the Bible, they teach it as they find it. They don't edit it to inject something that is not there.... But it in the political world in which we live, any comments against the homosexual lifestyle have been successfully characterized by much of the media as being hateful, and hate-inspired, and it is not." 6

Describing homosexuality as a lifestyle may be confusing to much of the public. "Lifestyle" implies choice, like deciding whether to live in the country or city; to get married or remain single; to use a car or transit facilities for transportation. Religious and social conservatives often believe that homosexuality is a chosen behavior that can be changed at any time and thus can be defined as a lifestyle. Most others, including essentially all human sexuality researchers and therapists; religious liberals; gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender persons, transsexuals, etc (GLBT); regard homosexuality to be a fixed sexual orientation that an adult discovers, not chooses. The latter group rarely refers to homosexuality as a lifestyle.

Wright is actually describing hate speech, not a hate crime. The hate crime bill only applies in in those cases involving a "crime of violence." A pastor can advocate restricted rights and even violence against African Americans, Wiccans, Jews, women, gays, lesbians, transsexuals, the disabled, or some other group. The guarantee of free speech stated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will fully protect her or him against prosecution. The congregation might well lose members -- particularly youth and young adults who are often repulsed by hatred of minorities. But the pastor will not be charged with a hate crime. A hate crime requires physical violence by the perpetrator.  

One remarkable poll was conducted by OneNewsNow -- a religiously conservative news source -- during 2009-APR. It indicates how effectively the fear of prosecution for mere hate speech has spread within the fundamentalist and other evangelical Christian community. While the 2009 hate crimes prevention act was being considered by the House Judiciary Committee, they asked their site visitors:

"Should the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act become law, are you concerned that the next step will be that pastors who speak out against homosexuality could be charged with a 'hate crime'?" 7

The results were:

bullet85.6% said Yes
bullet14.4% said No.

The level of fear in the evangelical Christian community is enormous.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Text of H.R. 1913: Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009," GovTrack.us, at: http://www.govtrack.us/
  2. Jennifer Mesko, "U.S. House Creates Special Legal Status for Gay People," CitizenLink, 2009-APR-29, at: http://www.citizenlink.org/
  3. Kathleen Gilbert, "Obama Urges House of Representatives to Pass Sexual Orientation "Hate Crimes" Bill," LifeSiteNews, 2009-APR-29, at: http://www.lifesitenews.com/
  4. "Wisconsin v. Mitchell," 508 U.S. 476 (1993)
  5. "Laws of New York, 2000, Chapter 107, Hate Crimes Act of 2000," New York State, at: http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/
  6. John Eggerton, "Obama Speaks In Support Of Hate Crimes Legislation. Is expected to be considered by the House this week," Broadcast Newsroom, 2009-APR-29, at: http://acquisition.broadcastnewsroom.com/
  7. "OneNewsNow.com Poll," 2009-APR, at: http://www.onenewsnow.com/

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Copyright © 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted: 2009-APR-29
Latest update: 2009-JUL-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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