Should Crimes That Take Place in Houses of Worship be Subject to Harsher Penalties?

New York State Senator Jeffrey D. Klein has re-introduced legislation that would impose harsher penalties for crimes that take place at houses of worship or cemeteries.

Senate Bill 2368 passed through the Senate last May, but didn’t go anywhere, so Klein’s trying it again now.

You can understand his reasoning for the bill. A break-in or burglary (or worse) that takes place at, say, a synagogue is arguably no different from a hate crime: it sends a message to the wider community and should be treated the same way.

But Sarah Kaiser of the Center for Inquiry explains why, despite the good intentions, she opposes the bill:

… New York State already provides special protection for hate crimes — including those motivated by race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Unlike the proposed law, hate crime laws require harsher punishment based on the intent behind the crime. Senator Klein’s bill requires harsher punishment based on location alone. It effectively privileges places of worship, as defined by state law, above other places.

Rather than creating a hierarchical system of harsher penalties in certain locations and not others, the NY state legislature should drop this bill. Crimes against individuals and community groups are always harmful — and should not be punished more harshly depending on the location where they take place.

In other words, the bill as it stands, already protects religious groups just fine, and harsher penalties are already given to those who threaten an entire community of people. By saying the location matters, it’s giving special protection to religious groups. Kaiser adds that CFI has two offices in the state, yet crimes that occur there would not be covered under Klein’s proposed bill.

She has a fair point. No one is saying we shouldn’t prosecute criminals to the fullest extent of the law — and religious groups deserve the same protection as other groups. (But I repeat: the same, not more.)

Where a crime takes place shouldn’t be the deciding factor when it comes to the severity of punishment. By that logic, you could argue that any crime that takes place in a public space is “sending a message” to groups that gather there and, therefore, the criminals deserve harsher punishments — stolen equipment from a public school? Robbery at a library? Where do we draw the line? Shouldn’t the purpose of the crime matter more than where it took place?

The bill still has a long way to go before becoming law — it’s possible it doesn’t get past the House again — but here’s a perfect example of good intentions leading to imperfect solutions.

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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