Why Catholics Should Take a Position on the Hate-Crimes Bill

Deal W. Hudson
Published October 15, 2009

Last Saturday night, President Barack Obama spoke to the nation’s leading homosexual-rights lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign, in Washington, D.C. Among the several promises Obama made were “to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act” and “to pass an inclusive hate crimes bill.”

As I reported a few days ago, the USCCB has yet to make any comment on Obama’s intention to put an end to DOMA and, as he puts it, ensure “that committed gay couples have the same rights and responsibilities afforded to any married couple in this country.” The hate-crimes legislation passed recently in the House, attached to a defense spending bill, is explicitly designed to combat hate crimes based on sexual orientation and “gender identity.”

A number of religious leaders and members of Congress have voiced concern about the threat of the hate-crimes bill to religious liberty and freedom of speech. According to the USCCB legislative report for the 111th Congress, the bishops are “monitoring” the measure and “taking no position.”

The legislation raises the question of whether religious leaders could be subject to prosecution based on their preaching or teaching. For example, if a priest told a congregation that homosexual acts were sinful, and someone in that congregation acted violently against a homosexual, could that priest be charged with a hate crime?

Catholic League president Bill Donohue is on the record warning against the potential “chilling effect on religious speech.”Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, described hate-crimes legislation as a “thought-crimes bill” that creates “special protection for a particular group” in violation of the principle of equal justice under the law.”

A leading social conservative in the House, Mike Pence (R-IN), objected to the legislation, arguing:

Hate crimes provisions… are antithetical to those First Amendment traditions and unnecessary. Violent attacks on people are already illegal regardless of the motive behind them, and there is no evidence that the underlying violent crimes at issue here are not being fully and aggressively prosecuted under current law… But these hate crimes provisions, including those that will be added to federal law today, are broad enough to encompass legitimate beliefs, and protecting the rights of freedom of speech and religion must be first and foremost and paramount on the floor of this chamber.

Are the concerns of leaders like Donohue, Perkins, and Pence unreasonable? Certainly the recent experience of Catholics in Canada should be a loud warning to American Catholics about how hate-crimes laws can be used to target the Church. Similar legislation has already been used in Canada as the excuse for an official investigation of a well-known pro-life activist, Rev. Alphonse de Valk, by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Father de Valk’s supposed crime was publicly defending Catholic teaching against the notion of same-sex marriage.

Canadian Bishop Fred Henry was required to testify before the Commission for the same reason. Though the complaint from a single individual was eventually withdrawn, the bishop spent thousands of dollars on his legal defense. One journalist summarizing all the cases of Catholics targeted for human-rights violations titled his article, “Catholicism – a Hate Crime in Canada?”

Yes, there is a final clause in the legislation saying it cannot be used in any way that “infringes on any rights under the first amendment… or substantially burdens any exercise of religion.”

But the problem is this: This hate-crimes bill allows prosecution of any speech that may “incite an imminent act of physical violence.” What guarantees do we have that religious liberty and freedom of speech for people of faith will be respected? For example, President Obama, in his speech to the HRC, proclaimed that, “We must all stand together against divisive and deceptive efforts to feed people’s lingering fears for political and ideological gain.”

Those “people” Obama is talking about include those pastors and priests who preach and teach that homosexual acts are a sin and those of the same sex cannot be considered married. It’s difficult to believe a hate-crimes law will be respectful of those who are considered “divisive and deceptive” simply for being witnesses to their faith and defenders of their Church.

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