President Obama’s decision yesterday to sign a federal hate crimes law, named for Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr, was criticized by figures on the Christian right, who fear the statute will be used to prosecute preachers who condemn homosexuality.
James Folger of Faith2Action typifies the hyped-up rhetoric. "The 'Hate Crimes' bill is better named 'Hate Grandma' or "hate Free Speech' bill as it poses a serious threat to the freedom of speech for every American. We must stop it before they send your grandma, your pastor, or you to jail for sharing your faith or speaking the truth about an agenda that seeks to silence us."
But no pastor or grandma will be put in prison for preaching from Leviticus. The First Amendment continues to protect freedom of expression in pew and pulpit. Fanatics like the Reverend Fred Phelps, who recently picketed Vermont for passing a gay marriage bill–would still be at liberty to spread their venom. Only actions–or direct incitements to action–could be charged under the new law. Words and opinions can be expressed with impunity.
There is some irony here, for based solely on crime statistics there is every reason in the world for even conservative clergy to support this legislation. According to FBI statistics, there are hundreds of people assaulted annually, not because of their sexual orientation but because of their faith.
Jews are the favorite targets, with 848 incidents of anti-Semitic violence reported in 2005. But Christians are also attacked frequently–115 times--almost as often Muslims, who were attacked for their beliefs 128 times that same year.
Over all, religious prejudice inspires even more mayhem than prejudice against lesbians and gays. Jihads, holy wars, and crusades are apparently even more virulent than homophobia.
The rationale for hate crimes legislation, of course, is to protect whole classes of people. When a synagogue is defaced by a swastika, or a church is burnt down, it harms not only the individuals who belonged to that particular congregation. It terrorizes an entire category of citizens and chills their ability to gather and worship according to their own conscience.
No piece of legislation can put an end to hatred. Only love can do that. But clergy of all faiths should support the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, which guards religious freedom–the very thing right wingers say they want to protect.
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