When Congress debated and ultimately passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, detractors unfairly criticized the law as a threat to free speech and religious freedom. Opponents, especially from the Religious Right, tried to cover up their animus by maintaining that efforts to protect people against violent crime were really attempts to ban “hate speech,” and consequently “criminalize religion."
Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, writes about how the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Snyder v. Phelps yet again exposes the dishonesty of the Religious Right’s arguments:
There has been no end of discussion about this church and its antics. Today I want to focus on an overlooked aspect of the controversy: For years, we’ve been hearing Religious Right leaders claim that their freedom to speak out on issues like homosexuality and abortion is at risk. To hear them tell it, “hate speech” laws are just around the corner, and Pastor Bob is only one step away from being tossed in the hoosegow if he dares to read from the Book of Leviticus in the pulpit.
It’s hard to imagine speech more hateful than that put forth by Westboro Baptist’s members. They think God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality, so they hoist signs reading, “God Hates Fags,” “Thank God for IEDs” and “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”
This is some seriously hateful stuff – and by an 8-1 vote the Supreme Court said in Snyder v. Phelps that it is protected speech. If Westboro Baptist can claim the mantle of the First Amendment to unleash this stuff, I don’t think Pastor Bob has to worry about his pulpit criticisms of same-sex marriage. W
henever cases like this come up, the term “hate speech” is thrown around a lot in the media. Although this term appears in common parlance, it’s not something the courts have adopted. Sure, a lot of speech can be termed “hateful” – and it’s also protected speech. The First Amendment does not require that speech be polite, rational or popular. After all, the First Amendment wouldn’t be very useful if all it did was protect your right to say something everyone agrees with.
The claim that “hate speech” laws are going to shut down fundamentalist churches and gag conservative pastors is, to put it politely, bunk. It was never a persuasive argument, and in light of Wednesday’s ruling stands in shreds. I’m hoping Religious Right leaders will have the decency to stop saying it – but I won’t hold my breath.
October 28 marked the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. I recently wrote about how honoring Matthew is part of Making It Better. Not only must we make sure that the law bearing his name is effectively implemented, but we must also ensure school safety for LGBT youth – a fact not lost on the Department of Education.
The Department’s Office for Civil Rights has issued guidance to address bullying in schools, especially as it relates to federal education anti-discrimination laws. One of those laws, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. While the language does not specify sexual orientation and gender identity, the Department has made clear that harassment on these grounds, under certain circumstances, violates Title IX.
Although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based solely on sexual orientation, Title IX does protect all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, from sex discrimination. When students are subjected to harassment on the basis of their LGBT status, they may also [. . .] be subjected to forms of sex discrimination prohibited under Title IX. The fact that the harassment includes anti-LGBT comments or is partly based on the target’s actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender-based harassment. [. . .] Had the school recognized the conduct as a form of sex discrimination, it could have employed the full range of sanctions (including progressive discipline) and remedies designed to eliminate the hostile environment.
The Departments of Education and Justice are rightly focused on the plight of certain religious students and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students who may not be receiving the full protections from bullying and harassment that are their right. While additional, specific protections are still needed, I commend this Administration for doing all in its power to protect vulnerable students.
Federal leadership on this important issue is critical to ensure that schools are safe places for all students, and that they help foster a culture in which bias and bullying are not tolerated. The guidelines will help community members work together to promote a civil and respectful environment for children, online as well as offline.
In order to fully protect LGBT young people, HRC continues to call on the administration to go beyond today’s interpretation of existing law and come out in support of two important pieces of legislation: the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act. The Student Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit discrimination by schools against public school students on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
It was a thrill to be at the White House celebrating the historic enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And now hot off the presses is this memo from Tom Perez, the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division, demonstrating how seriously the Justice Department takes its charge under this law. It';s addressed to U.S. Attorneys around the nation encouraging their active participation in delivering on Attorney General Holder's steadfast commitment to vigorous enforcement of the Act and to "develop[ing] ways that the Justice Department can educate communities about the new law and prevent hate crimes from occurring in the first place."
Today marks an historic step forward in the fight for equality. With the signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama sent loud and clear the message that freedom from violence is a right all Americans should enjoy.
As I watched the President put pen to paper, I couldn't help but reflect on my own memories of the tragedies that befell Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in 1998. How gripped the country was by each man's story. How years later I saw a stage production of Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project. I'll never forget the emotion that overcame one of my friends in the audience. He was struck by the fact that Laramie wasn't so different from his hometown. What happened to Matthew could have happened in his backyard. It could happen just about anywhere without people and a government willing to stand up to fear and hate. Today we stood up.
Enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is all the more remarkable for affirming a positive protection for gender identity - a first in federal law. In showing how far we've come, this action also shows how far we have yet to go. Just two years ago, a battle was fought over whether to include gender identity protections in employment discrimination legislation. ENDA's enactment with gender identity intact will hopefully be the next great achievement for the LGBT community, and for us all.
As the late Senator Kennedy so famously said, "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
Click here for today's statement from Reverend Timothy McDonald of African American Ministers in Action and Michael B. Keegan of People For the American Way.
Last night, the House passed the Department of Defense Authorization bill in a 281 to 146 vote. Attached to the legislation was the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which will expand current hate crimes law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity.
The bill passed despite Republican opposition to the hate crimes provision and accusations that it would prosecute "thought crimes." People For the American Way President Michael B. Keegan said in a statement:
Last night's vote was an important step towards finally enacting these hate crimes protections into law. This bill will help ensure that fewer Americans will become victims of violence simply because of who they are, while at the same time providing strong First Amendment protections. Limited hate crimes protections have existed for years on the basis of race and religion. It's long past time to expand this to include other targeted groups. I'm especially proud that this bill includes protections based on gender identity-the first time gender identity will receive positive protection in federal law.
The Byrd/Shepard Act is expected to pass in the Senate next week, the same week as the anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student murdered in 1998 because he was gay.
Last night, in a 178-234 vote, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moved one step closer to becoming law. This legislation protects victims of hate crimes based on disability, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.
The vote was taken on what's called a motion to instruct conferees - this one would have instructed those negotiating a final Defense Authorization bill to remove the hate crimes language included by the Senate. In a series of speeches (item 35) fit only for Right Wing Watch, the motion's supporters tried to take down this critical update to "equal protection under the law." Thankfully, their efforts were to no avail, and the Shepard/Byrd bill may soon reach President Obama's desk. A few minor hurdles remain, but we hope to see it signed within the next week.
With the stroke of a pen, the President will have an opportunity to send loud and clear the message that freedom from discrimination is a right all Americans should enjoy. And we cannot forget that this action would affirm - for the first time in federal law - a positive protection for gender identity.
Click here for more information from People For the American Way and African American Ministers in Action.