Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Senate bill S.909, also called the "Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act" (or simply "Matthew Shepard Act") is scheduled for a hearing in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill back in April in what was seen as bipartisan support. This bill, in one form or another, has been in discussion in Congress since 2001, but has failed for lack of support. Some of you may have heard of this proposed hate crimes act and the concern expressed regarding the ramifications this could present to the church and the public proclamation of the Word. You can read the full text of the bill here.

According to a Wikipedia article on this bill, FBI statistics indicate that of the over 113,000 hate crimes since 1991, 55% were motivated by racial bias, 17% by religious bias, 14% sexual orientation bias, 14% ethnicity bias, and 1% disability bias.

The article also indicates that this proposed bill is "supported by thirty-one state Attorneys General and over 210 national law enforcement, professional, education, civil rights, religious, and civic organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the NAACP. A November 2001 poll indicated that 73% of Americans favor hate-crime legislation covering sexual orientation."

The entire Wikipedia article, which includes information on the proposed bill's history in Congress, can be read here.

A major concern arises in the definition of "hate crime" and the groups this bill endeavors to protect. The usual designation of race, creed, and gender has been expanded to include "sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim." Now while reasonable people of faith would never think to hurt or endanger anyone, regardless of their beliefs, views, or lifestyle, this does not mean that they approve of what they see or are able to remain silent about it. That last part is the area of concern, especially for pastors who may find themselves preaching against sin that is now perceived as a protected class.

The last section of the proposed bill does offer these assurances, especially as they pertain to the protection of free speech:

    For purposes of construing this Act and the amendments made by this Act the following shall apply:

      (1) RELEVANT EVIDENCE- Courts may consider relevant evidence of speech, beliefs, or expressive conduct to the extent that such evidence is offered to prove an element of a charged offense or is otherwise admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence. Nothing in this Act is intended to affect the existing rules of evidence.

      (2) VIOLENT ACTS- This Act applies to violent acts motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of a victim.

      (3) CONSTITUTIONAL PROTECTIONS- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to prohibit any constitutionally protected speech, expressive conduct or activities (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), including the exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and peaceful picketing or demonstration. The Constitution does not protect speech, conduct or activities consisting of planning for, conspiring to commit, or committing an act of violence.

      (4) FREE EXPRESSION- Nothing in this Act shall be construed to allow prosecution based solely upon an individual's expression of racial, religious, political, or other beliefs or solely upon an individual's membership in a group advocating or espousing such beliefs.

The concern in the above is that the language is too weak to protect those who speak out against certain behavior where the so-called hate crime is claimed to be motivated by a given sermon or radio program, etc. In other words, will this prevent a pastor from being prosecuted when the criminal indicates that he was inspired to kill or injure someone because of what he heard in a sermon?

What do you think? Does this bill spell potential trouble for the church? Or are the assurances in the "Rules of Construction" sufficient to keep prosecutors from easily drawing a link of guilt from a pastor to a hate crime simply based on the criminal's claim of inspiration?


Carl Vehse said...

"Does this bill spell potential trouble for the church?"

It means that mentioning the sin of homosexuality in thought, word, and deed will slowly disappear from Missouri Synod sermons and synodical documents.

Don Engebretson said...

I understand what you mean, but my hope and prayer is that the Lord continues to reserve unto him those who will refuse to bow their knees to Baal and will proclaim the Truth without fear.