Friday, May 22, 2009

Fred Phelps Is Protected Under the Current Federal Hate Crimes Law

And gay people aren't.

In August of 2008, a fire broke out at Fred Phelps' home. Although no one has been implicated in the incident, after it happened Fred Phelps claimed that it was a hate crime and requested the Attorney General to treat is as much, saying "[t]here is evidence that hatred of our religion was the motivation, in part at least." (FYI- Fire investigators concluded that "it didn't appear that accelerants were used to ignite the fire").

I am not going to link to Fred Phelps' website. This man's religious beliefs are pretty well-known and can be found via a quick internet search. His Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) claims to be the mouth of God and since 1991 has been conducting protests throughout the nation opposing "the fag lifestyle." These physically non-violent protests usually declare that "God" hates such-and-such person, state, or entity because of his/her/its acceptance of "fags." Notoriously, his group pickets the funerals of deceased soldiers and other "fag enablers." His "church" is recognized and monitored as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Now, I in no way condone violence against anyone, even Fred Phelps. That being said, the wind has a funny way of catching people's putrid breaths and blowing it back into their faces. It's all about the cycle of violence, really. The WBC's protests may be physically non-violent, but I believe this man's religion is spiritually violent and abusive. If someone did, in fact, set fire to Phelps' home, do I think that's okay? No. But, assuming it was arson, I am not surprised that it happened. One cannot be as provocative as this man is and expect to water no seeds of violence in other people.

I personally have mixed feelings as to the efficacy of hate crimes legislation. The general idea behind hate crimes laws is that bias-motivated attacks are thought to inflict greater societal and individual harm and to incite community unrest. Some believe that bias-motivated assaults are of a different nature than other assaults because the victim of a bias crime has been attacked, in large part, because of his or her belonging in a certain group. In addition, studies have found that hate crimes are more likely to involve torture, to be random, and to be perpetuated by multiple attackers. On those bases, I agree that hate-based assaults are of a different nature and more disruptive of society than other assaults.

At the same time, I am not sure as to what extent hate crimes legislation deters hate crimes. However, what I find unfair about current hate crimes legislation is that, even though sexual orientation-based hate crimes constitute the 3rd most common hate crime in the US, it is currently not a protected class. And, it is not a protected class only because we have let The Matthew Shepard Act Will Give "special protection status to pedophiles" become a legitimate Other Side to this debate. In addition to sexual orientation, I would be very happy to see gender/gender identity added as a protected class since many women are assaulted and raped precisely because they are women. I can think of no objection to also include disability.

So, in light of this information, let's sit back and enjoy the irony that under current hate crimes legislation, Phelps' WBC can provocatively state "God Hates Fags" and then, if the WBC ends up being a victim of physical violence because of this "religious belief," the criminal could have committed a religious-based federal hate crime under the current law. However, if someone assaults a "fag," the criminal in that case would not have committed a federal hate crime because sexual orientation is not a protected class.

I know that some people of faith are worried that expanding the federal hate crimes law will "muzzle" people's ability to state Biblical "truths" about homosexuality. I am not at all worried about threats to free speech given that (a) we have a First Amendment in the US and (b) the hate crimes legislation punishes conduct not speech. One has not committed a hate crime unless one has first slapped someone around. So, I think some religious people are essentially enjoying their right to commit spiritual violence against LGBT people plus the special right to invoke the hate crimes law against this same population when the cycle of violence they began comes full circle.

Special rights for Fred Phelps? What's up with that, America?

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