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Far-Right Groups Twist Hate Crimes Language to Defend Bigoted Views

Posted May 20 2009 5:00am
As part of SIECUS' on-going opposition monitoring, we recently took a deeper look at how right-wing organizations are increasingly co-opting language related to "hate crimes" to defend the promulgation of their own divisive rhetoric.  The process of defining and establishing the parameters of hate crimes and hate speech has been increasingly adopted by some right wing groups who perceive that their own civil liberties are being infringed. Emerging legislation defining hate crimes tends to focus on acts that are expressly violent or threatening and based on a particular quality, such as sexual orientation, race, or religious identity.  Yet, as these legal protections take root, right-wing groups are twisting this framework in an attempt to justify and protect anti-homosexual positions.    

For example, in the United Kingdom, the Coroners and Justice Bill 2009 was introduced to the House of Commons in January 2009 and, subsequently, the House of Lords in March.  The bill "aims to deliver more effective, transparent and responsive justice and coroner services for victims, witnesses, bereaved families and the wider public."  It has sparked considerable controversy and outrage among religious conservatives over one of the provisions which expands protections for persons based on sexual orientation.    

In one such instance, the UK-based organizations, Christian Concern for our Nation and the Christian Legal Centre, launched a campaign to challenge the proposed change. The sample letter to lawmakers the groups disseminated as part of their advocacy kit clearly outlines their concerns:  

If the clause is removed, such words would be likely to prompt the police to investigate their speaker, even if the speaker was a pastor who had criticised homosexual conduct in the context of an address to believers.    Whilst Christians do not believe that hatred should be stirred up against people on the grounds of sexual orientation, it is reasonable to allow debate on the subject of Biblical texts and sexual ethics without those who oppose homosexual practice being made to feel that they cannot criticise it without infringing the criminal law.  This is the "chilling effect" on free speech that is likely to result from the removal of the free speech clause.  The free speech clause is needed to protect orthodox, traditional Christian beliefs on sexual ethics not to mention the freedom of speech of other raditionalists.

In the United States, newly introduced federal hate crime legislation and a recently released report from the Department of Homeland Security have elicited cries that freedom of speech, among other liberties, is under threat.  On April 7, 2009 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sent a memo to law enforcement offices entitled "Right-wing Extremism:  Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment."  The report identifies extremists that may be hate-oriented, anti-government, against those of a particular race, religion or ethnicity, or those dedicated to single issue such as abortion.  This last item has the opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights up in arms.   

Within days, The Thomas Moore Law Center filed a complaint against DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, on behalf of several plaintiffs, including Gregg Cunningham, executive director to the anti-choice organization, Center for Bio-ethical Reform.  

Richard Thompson, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center stated: 

This is not an intelligence report but a diatribe against those who oppose the policies of the Obama administration.  It is a declaration of war against the American people and our constitution.  It is a prelude to extreme gun control legislation and hate speech laws targeting Christian churches and others who oppose abortion and same sex marriage.    

Secretary Napolitano countered the charge, stating that:  

    At the very edge are the extremist groups that have committed violent crimes. They've committed bombings and the like. And that is where you cross from constitutionally protected free speech, freedom of assembly, all the rights we cherish, into homeland security and law enforcement.  

However, such outrage from the right only continued in the U.S. following the introduction of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 by Michigan Congressman, John Conyers on April 22, 2009.  If passed into law, this bill would authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute a specific set of hate crimes motivated by a real or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender-identity, or disability.  This builds on the existing jurisdiction of hate crimes legislation that provide protections based on race, color, religion and national origin.  Opposition to this bill is mounting from those who fear presents opportunity for religious persecution.  For example, the Christian Anti-Defamation Commission calls laws against hate crimes "one of the gravest threats to religious liberty and freedom of speech," and the Commission and other organizations are organizing the opposition.  

The sensationalist rhetoric continues to reach laughable and hyperbolic heights.  "Your pastor could be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit a hate crime if it passes and become [sic] law," cried Andrea Lafferty, Executive Director of the extreme right-wing Traditional Values Coalition. "This so-called 'hate crimes' bill will be used to lay the legal foundation and framework to investigate, prosecute, and persecute pastors, business owners, Bible teachers, Sunday School teachers, youth pastors -- you name it -- or anyone else whose actions are based upon and reflect the truth found in the Bible."  

Too busy fear-mongering about infringement of free speech and religious freedom, the many right-wing voices are ignoring the grave injustices, resulting in injury and, in some cases, death which are the core target of these hate crime laws.  Their sensationalist and overinflated claims of persecution draw the focus away from the any genuine dialogue about free speech.  In truth, the distinction between expressing dissent and inciting harm is clear.  It is our job as advocates to bring the focus away from any false claims and back to those communities that are most vulnerable to hate-based attacks.

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