Pastors In Prison?: Religious Right Spreads Lies About Hate Crimes Bill

Religious Right leaders keep playing the 'your-pastor-will-go-to-jail' card over the hate crimes bill.

Legislation that would target hate crimes is expected to start moving in Congress soon. The Religious Right is going bananas.

The legislation, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R. 1913), is intended to do a few key things: It would allow the U.S. Justice Department to offer assistance when a crime that results in death or serious injury is committed against any American because of the victim's race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The federal government could even prosecute such cases if local officials were unwilling to do so. This section of the proposed bill reflects statutes from the Civil Rights era that gave the federal government a greater role in battling crimes against African Americans in the Jim Crow South and also allowed the Justice Department to address the denial of voting rights. It's nothing new.

The bill also would also make some federal money available to for law enforcement training. It would help police officers recognize bias-motivated violence and combat it, especially among young people.

The bill penalizes assault and physical violence, not speech. In fact, the legislation makes it clear that free speech is protected. Section 10 states, "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution."

Nevertheless, here's what the Family Research Council told pastors in a recent bulletin: "Let's say you preach from Genesis 19 or Romans 1, referencing the homosexual agenda or lifestyle. Your sermon could be heard by an individual who applies it in a way prohibited by a hate crimes law. Not only would the offender be prosecuted under this law, but you could also be prosecuted for conspiracy. Consequently, hate crimes laws would radically impact our freedom of speech as Christians."

Wrong.

As Becky Dansky, federal legislative director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, told the Washington Blade, such claims by the Religious Right are "completely inaccurate, unless their priest or reverend or religious leader is physically assaulting someone based on their sexual orientation while they're giving that sermon."

Yet Religious Right leaders keep playing the "your-pastor-will-go-to-jail" card.

"An offended homosexual could accuse a pastor, Sunday School teacher of broadcaster of causing emotional injury simply by expressing the Biblical view that homosexuality is sinful," blares the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association in an e-mail alert.

Over at the Traditional Values Coalition, Andrea Lafferty warns, "Your pastor could be prosecuted for conspiracy to commit a hate crime if it passes and become law. 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."

What is the Religious Right's evidence for these extravagant claims? It doesn't have any.

The FRC is fond of citing the case of Ake Green, a pastor in Sweden who was sentenced to a month in jail in 2004 after he delivered a sermon attacking gays that he later distributed to local newspapers.

There are two things wrong with this: Green's case happened in Sweden. Sweden is not part of the United States. It does not have our First Amendment. Secondly, Green's conviction was later overturned on appeal.

Many members of the clergy are debunking the Religious Right's claims and support the bill (as does the ACLU). Hundreds of religious leaders endorsed the measure in 2007.

"This law," the clergy coalition wrote to senators, "does not criminalize or impede religious expression in any way. Rather, the bill specifically addresses violent acts by those who act on their hate to terrorize entire communities."

The text of H.R. 1913 is online at Thomas.gov. Anyone can go there and read it.

I sure wish the Religious Right would. But I suppose I'm being silly to think that would make a difference. Truth long ago became irrelevant to that gang.