Freedom of Speech Imperiled?
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?
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 unnecessary.”
Homosexual advocates applauded the bill.
“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 laypeople.
“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 magazine.
Some have pointed out that the U.S. legislation, while protecting freedom of speech, allows for potentially problematic prosecution.
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 violence.”
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.
- November 15-21, 2009