Passing Laws Won’t Cure Bigotry
By James Donahue
Lost amid the smoke and mirrors of America’s larger political issues has
been proposed legislation snaking its way through both the House and Senate designed to ban so-called hate crimes.
Similar versions of a Hate Crimes Prevention Act have been getting attention in
both houses in recent weeks. In fact a bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy, amending the National Defense Authorization
Act, quietly passed the Senate with little fanfare on July 16. For some odd reason there was no floor debate.
Similar bills have been kicked around by Congress. In April a bipartisan companion
bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed by the House of Representatives 249-175.
At first glance few Americans would object to this legislation because it gives
the Justice Department the power to investigate, or assist local police agencies in the investigation of selected hate crimes
against people because of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Such crimes would include acts that lead to death or serious bodily injury that were motivated by bias.
The Rev. Ted Pike, director of the National Prayer Network, a Christian conservative
watchdog organization, has expressed concern over earlier versions of the hate crimes legislation. His concern was that the
broad scope of the law would violate First Amendment rights of free speech. He noted that any public statement perceived as
bias and offensive against another person might be considered a hate crime.
As originally drafted, the bill could have brought an abrupt end to talk radio
and television commentary and make all electronic media, including the films produced in the movie industry, so carefully
guarded and edited, it will not be worth watching or hearing.
The act would have made it a hate crime to make negative comments in public against
or directly to Jews, women, homosexuals, transvestites, female impersonators, persons confused about their gender, pedophiles,
witches, warlocks, Satanists and anybody else that petitions to be included as a group on the list.
Similar laws are on the books in Great Britain and Canada and in Pennsylvania.
While careless and degrading commentary against any person or group is always
inappropriate, there are times when frank and open discussion about the beliefs and practices of people can be healthy and
informative. There also is such a thing in a free country as constructive criticism. This is the root of why talk radio is
attractive to so many Americans. The commentator often has a political or social message that might sometimes offend certain
members of society. That should not always be interpreted as a hate message.
Pike expressed concern that preaching from the pulpit against practices that the
church considers “sin” such as witchcraft and homosexuality would get men and women of the cloth charged with
federal hate crimes. Indeed, if ever a bigoted group of people existed in this society, it would be the fundamental Christians
who believe and practice this poppycock. Yet even they should have the First Amendment right to free expression of their beliefs,
especially if it is said within the confines of the church buildings where they meet. If said on public radio and television,
however, there is a gray area that might fall under question.
Pike worried that expanding the law beyond the borders of individual states and
making certain free expression a federal crime would make it so all-encompassing that it would have a profound effect on public
radio and television.
He wrote that “On the slightest evidence of bias, the police will descend
upon Christians, pastors, talk show hosts and radio station managers, indicting them with trumped-up ‘hate crime’
charges and exorbitant penalties.”
Ironically, Pike notes this law would also violate the Fourteenth Amendment which
prohibits government from favoring any particular group.
Pike worried that there is a danger that minority groups, and especially the Anti-Defamation
League, which pressed for the legislation, would misuse the law, charging hate crimes when they hear statements projecting
the slightest bias. Indeed, knowing the way lawyers feed on human greed, he probably is correct.
All of this was included among the voiced objections to the hate crimes bills
as they were originally drafted for both legislative houses. But something important happened last week that made the proposed
bill much more acceptable.
Senator Sam Brownback submitted an amendment that targeted only “speech
that threatens imminent incitement of violence” to be punishable under the hate bill. Speech that falls short of actual
incitement will remain protected.
That means characters like radio talk show personality Rush Limbaugh can continue
filling the airways with hateful, bigoted and extreme right-wing propaganda without fear of arrest. And while we never agree
with Limbaugh and his ilk, we believe he should have the right to do what he does so well. The alternatives would be ugly.
Picture our radio and television commentators all speaking and behaving like Stepford
Wives for fear of being arrested for saying something offensive. It would lead to some rather boring social intercourse. Real
thoughts would be bottled up and whispered in bedrooms, hallways and employee restrooms.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to prevent bigotry by merely passing laws. That
kind of social healing must come from the heart.
We should have learned through attempted civil rights legislation in the 1960s
that humans cannot force themselves to love one another through legislation. This kind of “love” for our neighbors
is conditional, and consequently wicked.
“Love is the law, love under will. Nor let the fools
mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well!” (From Liber
al vel Legis 1:57)