Friday, March 30, 2007

Hate crimes bill threat to free speech?

Apparently the "Traditional Values" Coalition does not consider the ninth commandment ("Thou shalt not bear false witness") a traditional value.

Rev. Lou Sheldon, the coalition's founder, is organizing a campaign to defeat Congressman John Conyer's "Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007." The law, he says, "begins to lay the legal framework to persecute and prosecute those who refuse, for moral and religious reasons, to agree or teach their children that homosexuality, transgender, cross-dressing etc is normal and desirable."

The American Family Association agrees: "The bill is the first step toward silencing any opposition to the homosexual lifestyle."

So a warning to all parents who are teaching their children to hate the sin, but love the sinner: soon the politically-correct Thought Police will come knocking on your door.

Actually, the proposed law simply strengthens enforcement of the existing federal hate crimes statute—which does not prohibit speech but does allow judges to impose longer sentences on an offender who "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 victim's race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability.

That means that Rev. Sheldon can spout his hatred of gays as much as he wants—with the full protection of the First Amendment, and God bless him. But if he hits a gay man over the head with a lead pipe, he's in big trouble. And assuming those good parents who want to instill loathing of homosexuality in their children are not prepared to make their point with fire, a firearm or an explosive device, they're off the hook.

And the law applies to me, too. If I were to punch Rev. Sheldon in the face, I'd be subject to a longer prison term if his lawyer could prove I was motivated by bias against his hate-mongering religion.

The Supreme Court upheld a similar statute in Wisconsin in 1993. In that case, a young black man named Todd Mitchell severely beat a white boy after asking friends, "Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?" The Kenosha County Circuit Court added five years to Mitchell's sentence because the assault was motivated by racial hatred.

Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist rejected the argument the "Traditional Values" Coalition seems to be pushing: that allowing judges to impose longer sentences on violent criminals whose crimes are motivated by hatred of a particular group will have a "chilling effect" on freedom of speech. Nonsense, Rehnquist wrote:

"We must conjure up a vision of a Wisconsin citizen suppressing his unpopular bigoted opinions for fear that if he later commits an offense covered by the statute, these opinions will be offered at trial to establish that he selected his victim on account of the victim's protected status, thus qualifying him for penalty enhancement."

That means that if Rev. Sheldon is not planning to hit a gay man over the head with a lead pipe, he has nothing to fear from this law. Similarly, I can freely express my contempt for Rev. Sheldon's disgusting perversion of the teachings of Christ—because I have no intention of smashing him in the face.

Besides, I don't hate the sinner—just the sin.


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