There’s a good reason the Anti-Defamation League and a number of other major Jewish groups have made passage of a new hate crimes bill a top priority: there are still too many places in America where violent crimes against unpopular minorities are not investigated or prosecuted with any vigor.
Different versions of the measure have again passed both houses of Congress, and once again conservative lawmakers are trying to attach “poison pill” amendments and marshaling their forces to strip the hate crimes provisions when the measures go to a House-Senate conference committee. And once again, Jewish groups face a tough fight in protecting legislation that may be even more critical as the recession fuels the growth of assorted hate groups.
The new law would allow greater federal involvement in investigating hate crimes and extend the coverage of existing hate crimes statutes to crimes based on gender, disability and sexual orientation. It’s that last category that has sparked the ire of conservative Christian leaders, who claim — incorrectly and outrageously — that the measure would bar ministers from preaching against homosexuality, essentially criminalizing the act of calling homosexuality a sin.
In fact, the bill has nothing to do with speech, only with acts of criminal violence. Additional language to ensure that religious rights are respected has been added to a measure that already was cautiously worded to avoid that problem.
Also contrary to the claims of these groups, this is not a “gay rights” bill despite its name — the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after the young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998.
The new law is necessary because of an inadequate patchwork of state hate crimes laws, which means there are places where crimes against groups that face local biases are treated as less serious offenses.
Jews are covered under previous federal hate crimes statutes, but our community has learned this lesson over generations: whenever hate violence is tolerated, at least implicitly, all minorities are threatened.
That’s what this bill is all about, not the suppression of the religious rights of those who preach against homosexuality. We agree with the ADL and with most major law enforcement organizations: it’s time to stop the legislative game-playing and reject the claims of those who insist that fighting violent bias crimes would somehow abridge their religious freedom.