May 14, 2007
On Thursday, May 3, the House of Representatives voted 237 to 180 to dramatically expand the federal hate crime law to include violence against a person because of his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. With the passage of H.R. 1592, and the likely passage of a similar Senate bill within weeks, Americans are facing the hate crime legislation that would effectively regulate speech, tampering with the bedrock liberties in our democracy of free speech and religious liberty.
In the aftermath of the House vote several arguments have been advanced opposing hate crime legislation. Some, like Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) protest on constitutional grounds, arguing that H.R. 1592 is contrary to the 14th Amendment, providing unequal protection under the law. Others oppose the bill because it elevates sexual orientation to the same status as race or gender. Still others argue from a federalist perspective that all hate crime legislation should be left to the discretion of the states.
While each of these arguments has merit, the paramount threat of H.R. 1592 and similar legislation is the undermining of freedom of speech and religious liberty. It is not a stretch to see the day when the articulation of religious beliefs is subject to prosecution as a hate crime (or an accessory to a hate crime).
Alliance Defense Fund attorney Glen Lavy argues that hate crime laws are “an effort to enforce the orthodoxy of political correctness and to curtail freedom of speech.” Remember, there is not a single violent act that hate-speech legislation advocates have in view that is not a crime already. What distinguishes this area of law is the involvement of the federal government and the effort to judge the thoughts or motives, not just the behavior, of an “offender.” Lavy points out that, “There is a legitimate concern that once Congress makes any ‘hate’ crime a federal offense, the categories of crime will expand to include speech that causes someone to ‘feel’ intimidated, just as they have in other places such as Australia, Canada and Sweden.” What he sees in hate crime legislation is the specter of the federal government policing not merely the action of violent crime, but the emotion of the perpetrator and a government definition of “hate.”
Chuck Colson sees the chilling effect on speech as the motive behind proponents when he argues that, “the intent of the law is not to prevent crime, but to shut down freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of thought. Its passage would strike at the very heart of our democracy.” Writing in the Washington Post, the Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Lanham, Maryland is clear about his ultimate fear: “This law can be applied in a way that can keep the church from preaching the Gospel.”
In recent years the publishing industry has been pumping out book after book warning of an encroaching “theocracy” in America—the steady advance of the religious right and their efforts to inundate government at all levels. From American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips to Randall Palmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America the stated or implicit goal is the same: warn America about conservative evangelicals’ covert mission to abolish the separation of Church and State and establish a Christian theocracy.
Perhaps the most militant of these prophets of an encroaching theocracy is Chris Hedges, author of American Fascist: The Christian Right and the War on America. In his book Hedges labors to position those who oppose hate crime legislation as despots who “keep their followers locked” in a “closed information system”—a trait typical of fascist groups:
Passivity in the face of the rise of the Christian Right threatens the democratic state. And the movement has targeted the last remaining obstacles to its systems of indoctrination, mounting a fierce campaign to defeat hate crimes legislation, fearing the courts could apply it to them as they spew hate talk over the radio, television and Internet. Despotic movements harness the power of modern communications to keep their followers locked in closed systems. If this long, steady poisoning of civil discourse within these closed information systems is not challenged, if this movement continues to teach neighbor to hate neighbor, if its followers remain convinced that cataclysmic violence offers a solution to their own ills and the ills of the world, civil society in America will collapse.
Hedges goes on to warn that “religious utopians” are “slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.” There is an irony here that should not be missed on newcomers to the hate crimes debate: It is the sympathizers of expanded hate crime legislation who ostensibly fear these “closed information systems” and prize free speech who are quite comfortable passing laws that will attempt to discern motives and scrutinize speech in ways that will fundamentally alter the exercise of First Amendment freedoms in our country. It is a Democrat-controlled Congress and key institutions of the left like Human Rights Campaign and the ACLU who are pushing through legislation that would dramatically expand the power of the federal government to police speech. Inevitably, early scrutiny would go to the feared “religious utopians”—in their pulpits and through their media outlets across the country.
Thankfully, this president has indicated a willingness to veto hate crime legislation that comes across his desk. But with George W. Bush’s days in office winding down, genuine First Amendment advocates should be prepared for the battles over hate crime legislation yet ahead. With the primary opposition coming from those with concerns based on freedom of speech and religious liberty, it seems fair to ask: Who is it, really, that is willing to tamper with the First Amendment and use the federal government to advance its agenda in a manner that could, legitimately, be feared as a “springboard to an American fascism”?
Mike Pohlman is an editor for National News and Public Affairs at Salem Communications. Contact Mike at: firstname.lastname@example.org.