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,
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:
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:
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 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.