Hate Crimes Bill and the Pulpit

Would the passage of a federal hate crimes bill restrict the freedom of preachers to preach? That is the meme of some conservative Christians and right-wing politicians as the bill, named for Matthew Shepard, passed the House of Representatives yesterday.

Beliefnet reports:

As the House took up a hate crimes bill that would add sexual orientation to a list of federally protected classes, Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition stood outside the Capitol and warned of dire consequences for clergy.

"They know the purpose of this bill is to silence pastors, to silence youth pastors, to silence people of faith," said Lafferty, joining her conservative Christian leaders and Republican lawmakers to oppose the bill....

...Groups ranging from Lafferty's coalition to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention have mounted a last-ditch campaign to try to kill the bill as it heads to the Senate.

Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy at the Southern Baptist commission, said he is concerned that the legislation could lead to prosecution of clergy whose words against homosexuality get tied to a crime committed by someone who listened to them.

Paul Raushenbush, Moderator of the Progressive Revival blog and the Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University, says that it would be very difficult to draw a direct line between the actions of an individual and the words of a particular preacher "hate speech from the pulpit probably indirectly contributes to such crimes if only in offering an ideological framework."

Dr. David P. Gushee, Distinguished University, Professor of Christian Ethics, Mercer University says:

As a Christian, I believe in the immeasurable and sacred worth of every human being as made in the image of God and as the object of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ. In our sinful and violent world, there are tragically very many ways in which this sacredness is violated. This bill deserves Christian support because its aim is to protect the dignity and basic human rights of all Americans, and especially those Americans whose perceived "differentness" makes them vulnerable to physical attacks motivated by bias, hatred and fear. The bill simply strengthens the capacity of our nation's governments to prosecute violent, bias-related crimes. I am persuaded that the bill poses no threat whatsoever to any free speech right for religious communities or their leaders. Its passage will make for a safer and more secure environment in which we and all of our fellow Americans can live our lives. For me, the case for this bill is settled with these words from Jesus: "As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me" (Mt. 25:40).

In a daily memo circulated on Capitol Hill, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn stressed that the bill is aimed at criminal behavior, not religious speech.

"The bill will NOT limit religious expression," he wrote. "Some churches have stated that with passage of this bill, ministers may be arrested for speech and words said in the pulpits. This is false. This bill is about violent crime. It is not about and does not prohibit thought, speech or expression protected by the First Amendment."

The passage of the bill and the Senate and probably signature by President Obama will not end the controversy. There is almost sure to be a challenge in the courts. The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition and Lafferty's father, is planning ahead.

"Only a miracle in the Senate will defeat it," Sheldon said. "We are preparing pastors. There needs to be, I think real quickly, a court challenge immediately that this is unconstitutional."

Here is an interview with Matthew Shepard's mother Judy, an Episcopalian, on the Rachel Maddow Show last night:

Read the rest here, here and here.

Comments (2)

After Matthew Shepard was killed, Laramie, Wyoming had to lay off four police officers to be able to afford to complete the murder investigation - though Federal assistance, both financial and technical, would have been available if sexual orientation had been included in the existing Hate Crimes law.

As a reporter I have seen rural police forces bankrupted by big murder cases; I have seen them sweep Gay serial murders under the rug in order to keep from being bankrupted. The result was a failure to warn future victims in the Gay community in Indianapolis.

Lou Sheldon isn't worried about pastors' sermons, but about anything at all that gives LGBTs human rights. He does this in the name of your religion, your church, your Savior. He supports every form of discrimination and heterosexual superiority.

I know the Episcopal Church tries to oppose him, but it's all without effect. Our bishops don't have the courage to demand justice for a crucified boy.

The extreme conservatives' claims about freedom of speech are hogwash. Rep. Clyburn is right that the law would punish crimes, not speech -- which is why the existing hate crimes law (protecting classifications other than sexual orientation) is constitutional. The First Amendment will continue to protect even the most hateful speech from the pulpit (and elsewhere) except for imminent incitement to violence.

This is the legal standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court:

[T]he constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.

(Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) 395 U.S. 444, 447.) In that case, it was held that a Ku Klux Klan leader could not be prosecuted for leading a cross-burning rally before an armed crowd at which he endorsed violent action to advance the cause of white supremacy. The First Amendment protected that extremely hateful speech because there were no victims present for the crowd to attack.

What's really bothering the extreme conservatives, of course, is not the prospect that they will be prosecuted for their hateful views, but that their views are being recognized by more and more Christians and other Americans as hate, having nothing whatsoever to do with the love and mercy revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

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