David Waters has a good rundown and smackdown of religious right opposition to the expansion of hate-crime law to include violence intended to intimidate lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people.
The bottom line is that these supposed people of faith are arguing in bad faith. They know this legislation won't affect their religious freedom in any way, but its enactment will force them to find a new lucrative bogeyman for future fundraising letters.
That was fairly straightforward, but let me put it more bluntly: The leaders of the religious right opposed to this bill are liars. They are liars motivated by greed.
Please don't clutch your pearls and get the vapors that such an impolite thing is stated so honestly. That Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council lies a lot in order to scare people into sending him money is not surprising, or new, or unusual or controversial. Tony Perkins lies for money. Giraffes have long necks. Water is wet.
The problem is that these charlatans and fearmongers have muddied the conversation to the extent that others — people who, unlike the Liar Tony Perkins, are trying to argue in good faith — are confused about the what and how and why of hate-crimes legislation. So let's quickly review and clarify a few points.
1. This is not about "thought crime"
The Liar Tony Perkins et. al. have exploited potential confusion arising from the name "hate crime" and stirred it into actual confusion about this. But no, these laws do not actually prohibit hatred. Hate crimes do not threaten the livelihood of those who, like the Liar Tony Perkins, feed and feed on hatred of The Other. Nor does it threaten the existence of bigotry that stops short of expressing itself through actual, tangible violence. Bigotry in all forms — racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, anti-Semitism — is still perfectly legal. So too are all the things that cause this bigotry — inarticulate fear, the insecurity that arises from deep-seated feelings of inadequacy, the recognition that unmerited privilege at others' expense is ultimately unsustainable, etc.
Hate-crimes legislation is actually bigotry-neutral. If you're a bigot, you have nothing to fear from such laws. (Of course, if you're a bigot, then you're probably not too concerned with whether or not your fears are ever founded or rational.)
The only extent to which hate-crime protections pertain to "thought" is in the way that all criminal law does, which is to say that motive matters. If you truly believe that the law should make no distinction between accidental manslaughter and premeditated first-degree homicide, because you truly believe that any such distinction constitutes the establishment of "thought crime," then I will accept that you are making this "thought-crime" objection to hate-crime legislation in good faith. (I'll think you're kind of an idiot, but at least a sincere idiot.) But you can't accept that distinction and still argue in good faith that hate crimes are "thought crimes."
2. This is not about limiting free speech in any way
Hate-crimes involve explicit and actual violence. It's not enough that someone makes a fist or shakes a fist — they have to hit somebody with it. Unless someone gets hit or shot or stabbed or set on fire or has their property destroyed, then there can be no hate crime. No harm, no foul, as we say on the playground.
And the First Amendment right to free speech — like the First Amendment right to free exercise — has never been interpreted to allow any of us the freedom to hit, shoot, stab or torch anybody else.
Free speech is not inhibited by hate-crime legislation. Hate speech isn't even inhibited by hate-crime legislation. Consider again the living, breathing embodiment of the proof of that: the Rev. Fred Phelps.
The only place hate-crime laws touch on speech is when that speech explicitly incites violence. That means speech directly linked to a discreet act of violence actually carried out. Speech like, for example, "Pull the trigger! Shoot him!" or the sort of "Go kill them all now" message broadcast by Hutu Radio. The sort of hate speech regularly practiced by the Rev. Fred Phelps does not rise/sink to the level of such incitement.
The Liar Tony Perkins and his buddies on the religious right have spent years telling evangelical ministers that they will be prosecuted for hate-crimes for sermons that mention homosexuality. The Liar Tony Perkins is lying about this. Those sermons could be as spitefully vitriolic and nasty as the stuff Fred Phelps says without any need to worry about prosecution. Evangelical pastors telling their congregation that it is their sacred duty to go forth and beat to death any homosexuals they encounter would be in legal jeopardy, so if that's you, be warned.
Short of that, though, you're safe, even if you sound exactly like Perkins or Phelps. (Legally safe, that is. If you sound like Perkins or Phelps then, well, your soul is in mortal peril. You can't hate your brother and not become the enemy of God. The Bible tells me so.)
3. This is about terrorism
A hate crime is simply an act of terrorism. Nothing more, nothing less.
(Does this mean that the Liar Tony Perkins and his fellow opponents of hate-crime legislation are defenders of terrorism? Yes, actually, it does. But to be fair, the Liar Tony Perkins doesn't defend terrorism out of any particular love for terrorism — he's just doing it for the money.)
Terrorism is violence with an agenda and an audience. Terrorism is violence that intends to send a message.
The content of that message doesn't matter. As we discussed above, laws against terrorism are not "thought-crime" statutes. It doesn't matter if the terrorists' message is "Death to America" or if it's "This is what we'll do to you, too, if you whistle at a white girl in this town." The content of the message isn't what makes it terrorism, the problem is the medium of the message — violence and intimidation.
If Bob assaults Jim, that's a crime. Bob is the perpetrator and Jim is the victim. Simple.
But if Bob assaults Jim in order to send a message to everybody like Jim that the same thing will happen to them if they don't do whatever it is Bob says, then that's also a hate crime, which is to say it's terrorism. Bob is the perpetrator and Jim is a victim, but Jim isn't the only victim. All those other people who are like Jim are victims of this crime as well.
That's what makes terrorism — hate crimes — worse than just the acts of violence at their center. The seriousness of the crime being perpetrated against those additional victims should not be dismissed or belittled. Their trauma is real and it counts. Just think of all those people in every red state who can tell you exactly where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.
4. Tony Perkins lies a lot for money.
It's who he is. It's what he does.