Hate crimes legislation under attack

Some elements of the Religious Right have begun to expand their agendas to cover a broader range of interests. Having focused exclusively on opposing abortion and gay rights, while ignoring more compelling heavenly demands to feed the hungry, house the homeless and care for the planet, Religious Right organizations are now debating the very narrowness of their public agenda. Some have embraced the need to tackle poverty and global warming, while others have attacked those moves, arguing they dilute the obsession with abortion and gay rights.

Nevertheless, efforts to broaden the agenda have not diminished the ferocity of the Religious Right’s attack on gays and lesbians: Witness their massive campaign to derail the hate crimes bill. In the days leading up to the May 3 House vote, Religious Right organizations unleashed hundreds of thousands of phone calls, ads, and exhortations designed to kill the bill.

Why would anyone oppose legislation against hate crimes? Is the Religious Right “pro-hate crimes”? They say not, but their arguments against the bill are so flimsy and fallacious as to cast doubt on their true motives.

In complete disregard of the black letter of the law, they maintain that ministers would no longer be able to preach against homosexuality. As the Traditional Values Coalition put it, this bill “is about preventing Bible-believing people and pastors from speaking the truth. It is about punishing them so they will not dare to speak the truth.”

For better or worse, this legislation would not outlaw hate, or even hate speech. The right of pastors to preach hate is fully protected by the First Amendment. Only crimes of violence are punished.

Penalties for those crimes are more severe if the motivation for violence is hatred of a particular segment of society.

Suggesting that pastors will be prevented from speaking the truth raises the question of what kind of truth they purport to speak. What do their pastors have to fear from penalties against those who commit violence motivated by hatred of a particular group?

A more sophisticated but equally specious version of the argument suggests we should only punish acts and not motivation. However, the law frequently takes motivation into account. Imagine an individual thrusting a knife into the chest of another person, who then dies as a result. If the knife-wielder was a surgeon attempting to use his blade to save a life there is no penalty at all — the act was deadly, but the motive pure. If instead the wound was inflicted in an instant of jealous rage, the penalty is severe, but, most of the time, not as severe as when, say, the attacker had laid in wait for hours to kill a business partner about to reveal fraud on the part of the attacker. Motivation often matters when we dispense justice.

And if the motive of a particular crime is to attack, indeed to terrorize, an entire group, it is fitting that the penalty be more severe than if the harm was inflicted only upon a single individual.

Most Americans understand the logic and support hate crimes laws, as does law enforcement. In a unanimous decision, the Rehnquist court found them constitutional. (Yes, we are now witnessing the spectacle of the Religious Right fighting for legal doctrine repudiated by Justices Thomas and Scalia.)

However, as it continues to reach for the furthest extremes, the power of the Religious Right may be waning. After all the calls and hyperbolic statements, the Hate Crimes Bill still passed the House by a hefty 237-180 margin. It remains to be seen whether Senate Republicans and President Bush feel free enough of pressure from their base to oppose violence motivated by hatred.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.