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Q&A about the federal hate crimes bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When the U.S. House of Representatives passed a hate crimes bill May 3 adding homosexuals and transgendered persons to protected classes, many conservative leaders said the legislation would stifle religious speech.

Baptist Press recently asked Chris Stovall, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, about the bill. ADF is a legal organization that works nationwide to protect religious liberties. Following is a partial transcript of the interview:

BAPTIST PRESS: “Some conservative leaders have said the hate crimes bill would threaten the ability to express moral opposition to homosexuality. How could that happen, since supporters of the bill say it’s aimed at criminal activity?”

STOVALL: “Hate crimes legislation is really a Trojan horse. Essentially, everywhere that hate crimes laws have been passed, it inevitably and eventually leads to prosecution of speech and expression. There is one interpretation in reading the bill that would allow state attorney generals to ask the federal government to come in and take over the prosecution of an alleged state hate crimes offense. There are some states that already have hate crimes laws that effectively make it a hate crime to quote-unquote intimidate somebody on the basis of whatever the protected classes are, including in some instances sexual orientation. There was a case in New Jersey where a Muslim gentleman who worked for one of the state university schools asked another professor not to send him e-mails about lesbian issues and referred to it as a perversion. She reported him [to university officials] and said she felt threatened by his characterization of lesbianism as a perversion. His discipline was upheld basically on the grounds that under the New Jersey law, speech like that was not protected. [They said] it constituted a violation of the state discrimination law. So, it’s not hard to see [how this could happen under the federal hate crimes bill] when you cook it all together — and especially when you look at other countries, too, that are further down this path than we are.”

BP: “What are some countries where this has been a problem?”

STOVALL: “Australia, for instance. In Australia you had two men who were prosecuted for a hate crime because they held a seminar to educate Christians about Muslim beliefs. And Canada has had several examples in the last couple of years of people who have been convicted or at least prosecuted and investigated under a law that criminalizes basically as hate propaganda any speech that’s critical of homosexual behavior. That can be anything from writing an editorial to a newspaper to possibly preaching a sermon. The classic sermon example is the Ake Green case in Sweden, where you had a pastor who stood in the pulpit of his small country church in Sweden and preached a message essentially urging his congregation to love persons who were involved in the sexual immorality of homosexual behavior, and preaching on why — based on Romans 1 — that it was the church’s duty to lovingly call people to leave that lifestyle behind. And he was criminally prosecuted [under Sweden’s hate crimes law] and threatened with a jail sentence. That case had to go all the way to the Swedish Supreme Court before he was acquitted. The Alliance Defense Fund was involved in that case. We provided a lot of support to the defense team over there. It took literally a coordinated international effort to spare that man from going to jail over what he preached in the pulpit out of the Book of Romans. It’s not far-fetched to see how this [bill in the United States] is the first chink in the armor of the First Amendment that leads down that path here.”

BP: “Especially when you get courts involved?”

STOVALL: “Absolutely. Even if you just think about the way a normal trial would have to go. The way this law is written, what you’ll have in some cases — if not many cases — is you’d have the prosecution spending a fairly extensive portion of the trial putting on evidence of what the defendant has said and perhaps written, and groups he’s attended. This is speech, press and association — these are all core First Amendment freedoms.”

BP: “Is it fair to say that this bill itself might not do what we fear it would do, but it could easily lead to that?”

STOVALL: “I think it all depends on the application and the interpretation. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario right out of the gate with this bill … that might allow federalizing prosecution of state hate crimes laws. And, like I said, many of those [laws] do not make the distinction that the proponents of this bill keep trumpeting — that it only covers violent crimes.”

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  • Michael Foust