House votes to enhance penalties for threats against religious institutions
The House passed legislation on Monday that would enhance penalties for threats of violence against religious institutions amid a spike in crimes targeting Jews and Muslims.
Passage of the bill by a vote of 402-2 comes a month after the FBI released a report showing an increase in hate crimes for the second consecutive year.
The legislation would ensure that threats of violence against religious institutions could be prosecuted as hate crimes and increase the penalty for destruction of property caused by fire or explosives.
“This kind of hate crime is simply unacceptable. After all, religious tolerance is the bedrock on which this great nation was founded,” said Rep. David Kustoff (R-Tenn.), the chief author of the bill and one of only two Jewish Republicans in Congress.
Law enforcement reported 1,538 hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2016, according to the FBI report. A total of 54.2 percent of those offenses were anti-Semitic, while 24.8 percent targeted Muslims.
The total number of hate crime incidents amounted to a nearly 5 percent rise from 2015.
By April of this year, the Anti-Defamation League found that incidents targeting Jews in the U.S. spiked by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. The group also reported a 34 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents last year, pointing to the political atmosphere from the 2016 presidential election as a reason for the increase.
The anti-Semitic threats ranged from vandalism, including at cemeteries, and physical assaults to harassment and bomb threats to Jewish community centers.
Muslims have also faced a bulk of religiously motivated hate crimes, especially since the last presidential campaign began in 2015. Mosques and Islamic centers across the country have been burned, broken into and vandalized.
The hate crimes targeting people who practice Islam have occurred as President Trump has made inflammatory comments and proposals concerning Muslims. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for banning Muslims from entering the U.S., and most recently, he retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a fringe British nationalist group.
A mosque in Paterson, N.J., for instance, recently received threats by telephone following the late October terror attack in New York City. The suspect in the attack lived in Paterson and may have worshiped at the mosque.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), another Jewish lawmaker, described how a man last year planned to bomb a synagogue in her district during Passover.
“It is deeply disturbing that the people in my community who attend synagogue and visit our Jewish community centers do so knowing that these domestic terrorists intentionally want us to feel uneasy about it,” Wasserman Schultz said during House floor debate.
“I deeply wish this legislation were not needed, but sadly, it is.”
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