The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 has been passed by the United States House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate. I have read it; you can, too, by going here. Be forewarned, though—it’s pretty boring reading.
The Act defines the term “hate crime” as it is used in the Act. Actually, it points you to a 1994 act that defined it. That’s in Section 2. The Act also provides for the Attorney General of the United States to, “at the request of State, local, or Tribal law enforcement agency…provide technical, forensic, prosecutorial, or any other form of assistance in the criminal investigation or prosecution” of hate crimes. It also provides for grants to assist those agencies in investigating and prosecuting such crimes. That’s in Sections 3 and 4.
For such a boring document, the Act sure is generating a lot of excitement. The part of the Act that is attracting the most attention is found in Section 6. Here’s some of what that section says.
SEC. 6. PROHIBITION OF CERTAIN HATE CRIME ACTS.
(a) In General- Chapter 13 of title 18, United States Code, is amended by adding at the end the following:
`Sec. 249. Hate crime acts
`(a) In General-
`(1) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RACE, COLOR, RELIGION, OR NATIONAL ORIGIN- 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 race, color, religion, or national origin of any person--
`(A) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, fined in accordance with this title, or both; and
`(B) 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.
`(2) OFFENSES INVOLVING ACTUAL OR PERCEIVED RELIGION, NATIONAL ORIGIN, GENDER, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, GENDER IDENTITY, OR DISABILITY-
`(A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B), 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 aspect of that section that has some people all riled up is the placing of a crime that involves the injuring or killing of a person because of his or her sexual orientation in the same category as such a crime that is perpetrated against someone for some other reason such as their race, religion, or national origin. The issue, some say, is whether or not gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons should be accorded some special status under the law.
A better question might be whether a law that seems to elevate the right of any group to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness over that of others should be adopted and enforced. Why, someone might ask, does an act of violence perpetrated against someone because of her race or because of his sexual orientation merit a more specific treatment under the law than an act of violence perpetrated against someone in order to take her money or to avenge some perceived wrong or out of just plain meanness? Is not, as a colleague of mine asked, any unlawful violent act a hate crime? It nonetheless seems to me that a special category of “hate crime” seems a necessary thing because a crime that is inflicted upon someone because of their racial or religious or gender status is in a sense a crime against anyone who belongs to that particular group. The disrespect for persons that such crimes reflect tears at the very fabric of our society and thus those crimes are, from a societal point of view, particularly heinous.
In other words, there are issues arising from this act that are legitimate and that merit serious discussion. While it is difficult to envision someone being beaten or killed because he is straight, it is nonetheless true that whether or not homosexuals should be accorded a different status under the law than heterosexuals is a serious matter worthy of serious debate.
Unfortunately, some commentators are raising issues that this act does not raise and in their paranoia they are obscuring those real issues. In a recent editorial in the Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, editor Gerald Harris quoted Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, as saying,
If (or when) federal thought crimes laws are passed, your right to share politically incorrect parts of your Christian faith could, in fact, become a federal crime…. Criminalizing Biblical truths would effectively silence the gospel in public. This kind of legislation is an attempt to criminalize our thoughts, punish our beliefs and silence our voices.
Harris goes on to recount cases in other countries in which pastors have been charged or convicted for preaching against homosexuality or for criticizing Muslims.
The problem with such arguments is that they attempt to get Christians agitated over something that is not even there. Take a look at Section 8 of the Act:
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.
Just to refresh our memories, here is what that First Amendment says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
The First Amendment is the one that guarantees our freedom of religion and our freedom of speech. The Act specifically states that the Act shall not be construed to prohibit our exercise of those freedoms.
It is absolutely vital that our freedoms of speech and of religion be protected. Pastors and other Christians, as well as atheists, secular humanists, Scientologists, and anyone else must be free to say what they believe. But here’s the thing: there is nothing in this Act that says anything different. As is often the case, a cartoon says what I’m trying to say better than I can.
I’m a preacher. I am painfully conscious of my obligation to preach and teach the Bible. Sometimes that means that I have to say things that could be hurtful to some people. There’s plenty in the Bible, after all, that will step on all of our toes. Sometimes those hard truths have to be spoken but they have to be spoken in love.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 does not stop me or you from saying whatever we believe we need to say. God forbid that our words or our behavior would ever get people to thinking that such a law might be a good idea. God forbid that any of us ever incite hate or nurture bigotry through our preaching of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
If I ever find myself preaching with hate in my heart so as to incite hate in the hearts of others, may the good Lord be gracious enough very quickly to put me in a place where I can do no harm.