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Hate Crimes: The Same Three Arguments They Always Make, And The One Thing They Never Say

May 11, 2009 7:28 pm ET by Kaitlyn Golda

A particularly contentious bill has passed the House and makes its way towards the Senate, gathering steam and vitriol from conservatives as it goes. Known among laymen as Hate Crimes, or "The Matthew Shepard Bill," the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would expand already-existing legislation that allows violent crimes committed because of someone's real or perceived race, religion or ethnicity to be prosecuted as "hate crimes." The expansion of the bill would qualify as hate crimes violent crimes committed because of someone's real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It would also allow the federal government to lend support to local law enforcement to do this, and to step in when local law enforcement was unable or unwilling to prosecute the case.

For a bill so simple, so straightforward, and so carefully worded, it generates a truly astonishing amount of crazed opposition - and a lot of repetition. Below are the same three unsupportable arguments conservatives always make against the Hate Crimes bill - and the one thing they never talk about.

The "This Bill Limits Free Speech" Argument:

Conservative producer and Fox News guest Brad O'Leary claimed in an op-ed: "The proposed Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HR 1913), which would make it a 'hate crime' to criticize 'sexual orientation' and 'gender identity,' is a thinly veiled attack on free speech - both over the airwaves and the Internet."

Rep. Louie Gohmert asserted: "The new Federal Hate Crimes bill, which is about to pass the House, intrudes on First Amendment freedoms of speech and religion."

No, it does not. The bill goes to great lengths to protect free speech. As Rep. Barney Frank noted, with his usual tact: "If the hate-crimes bill passes tomorrow, it will still be legal for you to call me a fag. I just wouldn't recommend it if you're in the banking industry."

The "This Bill Infringes On Freedom Of Religion" Argument:

Rep. Mike Pence said: "I fear this legislation, intentionally or unintentionally, could have a chilling effect on the religious expression and the religious freedom of millions of Americans."

Rep. J. Gresham Barrett insisted: "The Hate Crimes Bill could allow for the criminal prosecution of religious leaders or members of religious groups who express the beliefs of their respective faiths."

In a speech on the House floor, Rep. Lamar Smith claimed: "The bill also could have a chilling effect on the words of religious leaders or members of religious groups... Some of my colleagues on the other side claim that the bill protects religious speech. But religious leaders could still be subjected to criminal investigations and be reluctant to preach the teachings of their faith as a result of this bill."  

It is not merely that Rep. Smith's "colleagues on the other side" claim that religious speech and speech in general are protected from prosecution - the bill itself clearly outlines what constitutes a hate crime, and religious speech obviously does not. The constitution stands.

Sen. Gordon Smith put it best when he said: "This act is about the prosecution of crime, not prohibition of speech. Unless they believe part of their religion is the practice of violence against others, they should not be affected by this bill."

The "This Is A 'Thought-Crimes' Bill" Argument:

Shawn D. Akers has an extensive breakdown of the bill and concludes that it "Punishes Thought (Potentially Religious or Political thought) rather than Mere Intent To Commit a Crime."

 Matt Barber, lawyer with the Liberty Counsel, said: "As has proved to be true in both Europe and Canada, this Orwellian piece of legislation is the direct precursor to freedom killing and speech chilling 'hate speech' laws."

Rep. Steve King of Iowa put out a press release: "'Thought Crimes' Bill Will Damage Religious Freedom in America." For the argument on religion, an ever-popular one around this law, please see above. Then there is the "thought crime" allegation: "This unconstitutional bill aims to protect new classes of people based on 'gender identity' and 'sexual orientation.' These are classifications of people that are based on their inner feelings - their thoughts. Punishing 'thought crimes' will infringe on freedom of speech and religious expression, rights endowed to all Americans in the Constitution."

Let's take a giant leap into the inner workings of Rep. King's mind and assume that he, like the right-wing blogs he has clearly been reading, means to say that this bill translates to "Big Brother is out to get you," and that thinking, or worse, saying mean things about gay people will get you arrested. Luckily for Rep. King, freedom of speech is still protected in this country. This law is specifically limited to "crimes of violence." Thinking and speaking are not a "crime of violence" and, therefore, cannot be prosecuted under the Hate Crimes act.

The One Thing They Never Say

In all of the panic and proselytizing over free speech and religion and The Gays, a key component of the Hate Crimes bill gets lost in the shuffle.

Just over a year ago, two bored teenagers in Ohio broke into a home and tortured the 18 year old girl they found there in unspeakable ways, including dousing her with water and making her walk barefoot in the snow for their entertainment. Ashley Clark was mentally disabled and recovering from brain surgery. Her assailants were prosecuted for aggravated assault and battery, among other things.

According to the website " February 2007, Ronald Bray, from California, was sentenced to 32 months in prison because he spat upon a man in a wheelchair who was outside a 7-Eleven store, pushed the man's wheelchair into a lightpost, racially vilified the victim and raised his arm in a Nazi salute."

In 2008, two men in Oklahoma were arrested for torturing a mentally disabled man in his home. According to an AP article published by NewsOK: "Court documents show investigators uncovered video recordings of the attacks that showed two men holding down the victim and branding letters into his chest with coat hangers. The video also showed the victim being shot with air pistols and paintball guns while he begged the men to stop."

In the frequent, oft-repeated, and largely factually inaccurate arguments against hate crimes legislation, rarely does anyone speak of the need to protect disabled citizens from hate crimes, or have better resources to prosecute those who commit them. Perhaps discussing cases like these lends too much support to the argument that there are vulnerable segments of our population, and that a strong legislative stand is needed to protect them from prejudicial violence.

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