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What potential effects will the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law last month, have on religious liberty and freedom of speech for people of faith?
BY TIM DRAKEREGISTER SENIOR WRITER
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama
signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law Oct. 28. It expands the 1969
hate-crimes law to include crimes against people committed because of gender,
sexual orientation or disability.
The president said the law would
“help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they
love, how they pray.”
Religious leaders, in particular,
objected to the bill’s original language because they worried that it would not
protect First Amendment rights and religious freedom. Some felt that the law
might restrict clergy and others’ ability to speak out on issues of morality,
such as homosexuality.
The final bill was changed to
strengthen free-speech protections. According to the new language, people
cannot be prosecuted on the basis of speech, beliefs or associations.
Yet, even with the new language,
there were those who argued against the bill.
The legislation was included as an
amendment in an unrelated defense-authorization bill.
“The president has used his position
as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda,” said Rep. Mike
Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference. “Hate crimes
provisions … are antithetical to those First Amendment traditions and
Homosexual advocates applauded the
“This law will not limit the use of
offensive hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment,” said Steve
Glassman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. “However,
hate-crimes law can be used to address hate activity when an underlying crime
has already been committed.”
Critics of the bill suggested that
it merely adds harsher penalties for acts that are already considered criminal.
“Bills of this sort are designed to
forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime,” said
Erik Stanley, senior counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund. “All violent crimes
are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice.”
Critics also argued that the law
creates a new protected minority class.
Effect on Pastors
“It elevates homosexuality to the
same protective category as race,” said Mathew Staver, founder of the Liberty
Council. “It’s all part of the radical homosexual anarchist agenda.”
“The difficulty I have assigning
sexual orientation as a hate crime is that it’s hard to determine how someone
reveals himself as a homosexual, unlike ethnicity, race or gender, which have
physical characteristics,” said Msgr. Patrick Brankin, spokesman for the
Diocese of Tulsa, Okla.
“Just because a person practices a
certain sexual behavior shouldn’t make them a special class of citizen,” said
Judy Smith, Kansas state director for Concerned Women for America. “It’s going
to push Christians into situations in which they really have to be able to
stand on the truth, no matter what the consequences.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops monitored the legislation, but took no official position on it.
Members of the clergy expressed
their concerns about what effect the legislation could have on pastors and
“I do have some concerns about it,”
said Rev. John Christensen, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, Wyo.
“I see it as a back door to censoring speech.”
Canada’s Cautionary Tale
Clergy members cite Canada as a
reason for concern. Similar legislation in Canada has resulted in prominent
religious leaders being investigated for things they’ve said or written.
Calgary Bishop Frederick Henry was
required to testify before a Canadian human-rights commission for defending
Church teaching in a pastoral letter against same-sex “marriage” to those in
his diocese. Eventually, the complaint was withdrawn, but not before Bishop
Henry spent thousands of dollars for his legal defense.
The Canadian Human Rights Commission
investigated Father Alphonse de Valk, a prominent pro-life activist, for his
defense of Church teaching.
The Alberta Human Rights Citizenship
Commission ordered Protestant youth pastor Stephen Boissoin to pay a fine and
cease speaking publicly about homosexuality until he changed his opinion.
Canadian complaints have also been
made against the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Insight
Some have pointed out that the U.S.
legislation, while protecting freedom of speech, allows for potentially
Deal Hudson, director of
InsideCatholic.com, drew attention to the fact that the law allows prosecution
of any speech that the courts deem could “incite an imminent act of physical
As an example, Michael Schuttloffel,
executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, questioned whether a
priest might be held responsible for “inciting hatred” if a member of his
congregation committed a violent act after listening to the pastor speak against
immoral behavior in a sermon.
“It’s inevitable these issues will
end up in the hands of the courts,” said Schuttloffel. “It’s just a big
question mark of how this will play out, but we don’t have a tremendous amount
of confidence in how the courts interpret these things.”
“What guarantees do we have that
religious liberty and freedom of speech for people of faith will be respected?”
Hudson asked. Citing language President Obama had used in a speech before the
Human Rights Commission earlier this year, Hudson said, “It’s difficult to
believe a hate-crimes law will be respectful of those who are considered
‘divisive and deceptive’ simply for being witnesses to their faith and
defenders of their church.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.