On Jan. 16, the national ex-gay umbrella network Exodus International declared its opposition to the inclusion of sexual orientation in federal hate-crime laws.

Exodus President Alan Chambers cited the Philadelphia-based antigay protest group Repent America as an example of Christians whose First Amendment rights were allegedly violated in 2004 by government officials and gay activists who were supposedly armed with local hate-crime laws.

Focus on the Family launched an almost identical campaign the same day, quoting Chambers and its own pundits as the sole sources of information about hate-crime laws.

Ex-gay activist Stephen Bennett couldn’t resist joining the campaign — boasting on Jan. 17 that he was coordinating a secret White House effort. According to AmericaBlog via Pam Spaulding, Bennett told the following to his mailing list:

“I cannot give any more of the details as of this time, but SBM is coordinating a private meeting with President Bush and other FORMER homosexual men and women, along with their families to VETO this bill, should it come to that point. A very well know Senator who believes in our efforts is working directly with SBM to secure this meeting. Lord willing, this meeting will be taking place VERY soon and we need you to PRAY.”

But just days later, on Jan. 19, a federal court ruled against Repent America for violating the First Amendment rights of others. As it turned out, the ex-gay campaign against gay/straight participation in hate-crime laws was built upon the shifting sands of arrogance, politics, and self-pity, not a solid foundation of fact regarding federal hate-crime legislation. 

The timing of this ex-gay campaign was suspicious from the start. Coinciding with Religious Freedom Day, Exodus and Focus sought to deliberately confuse hate crimes with hate speech and to stake out both, potentially, as forms of religious freedom. But the odd timing goes beyond that: Exodus and Focus on the Family knew, or should have known, that a verdict was near in Repent America’s claim to be the victim of suppressed free speech — and they should have known that the organization’s loss of the case was a foregone conclusion.

Protesters for Repent America had sued Philadelphia and the organizers of a downtown Philadelphia entertainment festival in 2004 after the protesters were arrested for using megaphones to shout down the celebration, and for disobeying police orders. The protesters were charged with numerous offenses — among them, some local hate-crime charges which were dropped because no violent crime had been committed. The federal court found that other charges against the protesters were justified.

“I am pleased that Judge Stengel was complimentary of the city’s efforts to protect First Amendment rights, while still preserving the public order,” said Philadelphia City Solicitor Romulo Diaz Jr. in a written statement reported by the Philadelphia Daily News.

[Judge] Stengel said the right to speak and assemble is not without limits. “There is no constitutional right to drown out the speech of another person,” he wrote.

After the city issued a permit to Philly Pride for OutFest, it had the authority “to enforce the permit by excluding persons expressing contrary messages,” the judge observed.

Misleading claims about Repent America were not the only untruth issued by Exodus and Focus on the Family. They and Stephen Bennett also claimed that the proposed revision restricts religious expression — but suspiciously, none of the groups protesting the revision were willing quote either the revision or the existing law; they even imply that hate-crime laws are not already in effect for other demographic groups that are frequent targets of violence. Had these organizations provided the facts, their supporters might have realized that neither existing law nor the revision hinder religious expression — unless one considers violent crime a valid form of religious expression. In fact, the existing law does the opposite — it protects religious expression by explicitly punishing bodily violence committed on the basis of a victim’s religious faith.

What Exodus didn’t want people of faith to know

The revision for sexual orientation, the existing federal hate-crime law and the existing sentencing guidelines solely address violent crime, not speech. Here’s the key text of the revision:

Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, or an explosive device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability of any person–

(i) shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years, or fined in accordance with this title, or both; and

(ii) shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or fined in accordance with this title, or both, if–

(I) death results from the acts committed in violation of this paragraph; or

(II) the acts committed in violation of this paragraph include kidnapping or an attempt to kidnap, aggravated sexual abuse or an attempt to commit aggravated sexual abuse, or an attempt to kill.

In effect, whether through deliberate intent or recklessness, Exodus and its political allies tarnished Religious Freedom Day by asserting that violence against homosexuals is a valid form of religious expression that is threatened by hate-crime laws.

Several other web sites have noted that, since federal hate-crime laws were established in 1994, anti-Semitic protests and KKK rallies have continued unhindered. Adding sexual orientation to the existing laws does not prevent Repent America, Exodus, or for that matter gay activists from protesting — rather, the addition seeks to emphasize that violent crime on account of the victim’s heterosexuality or homosexuality will not be excused or overlooked by authorities.

There is legitimate cause for concern as to whether hate crime laws in general go too far in punishing the intent behind a violent crime based on race, gender or other considerations. Unfortunately, instead of raising legitimate arguments about violent crime and its intent, Exodus has chosen to tell untruths to people of faith, to stoke unjustifiable anger and fear, and to conflate valid religious expression with violent crime.

Jim Burroway of Box Turtle Bulletin offers excellent further analysis of the federal legislation. He contrasts the facts with the ex-gay political spin of Focus on the Family and Exodus.

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