Hating On Hate Crimes

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It hasn’t gotten much notice, but the progressive think tank Third Way has done some really interesting work in the past few months trying to bridge and heal divides between the gay rights community and some religious communities. (And, of course, the two communities are not mutually exclusive. A Barna Group survey released this week on the spiritual beliefs of gay adults found that a significant majority of gays and lesbians say that religion is an important part of their lives.)

Tensions were exacerbated by the Prop 8 campaign in California last fall and a great deal of attention has focused on those conservative religious leaders–like Rick Warren–who have spoken out against civil unions and gay marriage. More recently, the Hate Crimes Bill currently being considered in Congress has led the usual suspects to protest that extending federal hate crime protections to gays and lesbians would threaten religious liberty.

So it might have surprised some people that at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing today on the Hate Crimes Bill, a number of religious leaders submitted testimony in support of the legislation. They included Catholic University Professor Stephen Schneck and Derrick Harkins, an African-American pastor in Washington, DC. In addition, Third Way has developed a Q&A document for religious communities that cuts through the rumors circulating that expanded hate crimes protections would result in pastors being thrown in jail and churches shut down. Just one example:

Could a pastor be prosecuted for preaching that homosexuality is an abomination, or saying that gay people will go to hell? No. Unless a person actually causes ‘bodily injury,’ or attempts to cause bodily injury…they cannot be prosecuted under the proposed hate crimes bill. This bill is not about thinking or believing, but doing and harming. In fact, sine 1968 when a parallel federal hate crimes bill was passed, there has not been a single successful prosecution based on speech. There have also been none in the 45 states that have hate crimes laws.

Interestingly, the document is available in Spanish as well, and a network of Hispanic evangelical pastors has been making sure that it gets out in their communities. It’s so easy to generate heat and not light when the subject is culture wars. This effort is an useful model for how to take concerns seriously while at the same time diffusing suspicions. No one thinks it will eliminate opposition to expanding hate crimes law. But it does make it more difficult to base that opposition on phantom arguments.