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Hate speech laws: A new cross for Christians to bear

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted March 7, 2005

When Pennsylvania was amending its "hate crimes" law, the Ethnic Intimidation and Institutional Vandalism Act, a few years ago, proponents readily dismissed the concerns expressed by Christians about the inclusion of protection for "sexual orientation." The reason the advocates of traditional values protested was not because they wanted physically to bash homosexuals -- believing Christians do not operate that way -- but because they realized that their own First Amendment rights easily could be jeopardized.

Such concerns were dismissed as the figment of overheated imaginations by those legislators and advocacy groups pushing for the hate crimes law. The idea of jailing the purveyors of tasteless jokes was derided; the amendment was about the throwing of sticks and stones, not name-calling. State Rep. Mark Cohen (D–Philadelphia) promised "This bill is not about what ministers or Sunday School teachers say. This bill is about what thugs, hooligans and murderers do." It was about "blood in the streets" rather than bad jokes.

Then came the homosexual sponsored "Outfest" in Philadelphia last fall.

A small group of Christian activists decided to protest at the event that occurred on October 10, 2004. A self-proclaimed homosexual security group called the Pink Angels decided to prevent the Christians from exercising their constitutional liberties. There was plenty of jostling and heated words but the videotape of the event shows no actual violence occurring. The Pink Angels went free. The Christian protestors were not so lucky.

Eleven Christians ended up in jail. Five Christians faced charges. Four adult Christians were ordered by Judge William Austin Meehan to stand trial on charges of criminal conspiracy, possession of instruments of crime, reckless endangerment of another person, ethnic intimidation, riot, failure to disperse, disorderly conduct and obstructing highways. The Christians who quoted Scripture (which led to their being charged) confronted the possibility of total prison sentences as long as 47 years. A teenager was charged as a juvenile.

A requirement for bail prohibited the Christian activists from staying at least 100 feet away from any homosexual event. Fortunately, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas

Judge Pamela Dembe overturned that requirement because it represented an "unusual restriction on a person's right to speech."

Diane Gramley, President of the American Family Association of Pennsylvania, reminded Pennsylvanians, "Our prediction of the arrest of Christians under this law became true in October."

San Francisco filmmaker Michael Shaw of Enough Said Productions had been interviewing a leader of Repent America, one of the Christian protest leaders facing charges, for a documentary. He told WorldNetDaily's Ron Strom that he almost ended up being charged although he was simply filming Repent America's Michael Marcavage for a documentary on the protests against same-sex marriage. "I've seen a lot of people from where we're from do a lot worse things and get in a lot less trouble," Shaw told Strom. "Everyone thought they'd just get a slap on the wrist."

Fortunately, in mid-February, Judge Paula Dembe ruled that there was no basis for the charges. She said, "We are one of the very few countries that protects unpopular speech…We cannot stifle speech because we don't want to hear it, or we don't want to hear it now." That is not really the end of the affair for as long as the hate crimes provision is on the books in Pennsylvania the fact is that Christian activists remain at risk for simply speaking what they believe.

There is a move by State Rep. Tom Yewcic (D -- Cambria) in the Pennsylvania Legislature to remove the language that was used to prosecute the Philadelphia Five. The bill has been referred to the State House Judiciary Committee and has the support of Concerned Women for America and the American Family Association.

Yewcic reminded The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "When we argued on the House floor in 2002 we [said] this particular amendment would result in hate crime changes geared toward censoring religious speech."

The Philadelphia case should only be more troubling when one realizes that the USA-PATRIOT Act has changed the definition of domestic terrorism from those acts that are true acts of violence to any violation of federal of state criminal law -- including misdemeanors -- that are deemed dangerous to human life and could be used to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population." Put a definition like that in the hands of prosecutor's intent on pursuing prosecutions for Politically Incorrect activism and who knows what would happen.

The Philadelphia case also takes on added salience because the British Parliament has been considering legislation cracking down on hate speech. Crosswalk.com writer Kevin McCandless noted in a recent article "UK Edges Closer to outlawing Religious ‘Hate Speech'" that Home Secretary David Blunkett had tried to dismiss concerns that the law would not be used for frivolous prosecutions but to pursue extreme advocates who are whipping up hate against Muslims or atheists.

However, the Barnabas Fund, a British organization that exists to aid persecuted

Christians, in its January 2005 analysis of the legislation, noted "The government says the law will not affect legitimate criticism, missionary activity or jokes. However, there is nothing in the text of the law to guarantee this." In fact, the Barnabas Fund argued that the determination of what kind of language is acceptable would be "subjective decisions" left to the discretion of the courts.

The House of Lords is expected to consider the "hate speech" provision this month. A letter that the Barnabas Fund hopes its supporters will mail to members of the House of Lords expresses concern that the legislation containing the hate speech provision will be fast-tracked through that chamber before the campaigning begins in earnest for the Parliamentary elections that are anticipated to be held this spring. "There is now the danger that it will be rushed through the Lords before the election, again without allowing the proper time for debate. This is deeply worrying on a law known to be controversial and potentially damaging to free speech," says the letter.

Every American state and the District of Columbia have laws on the books to bring perpetrators of violence against any law-abiding citizen. The idea of "hate" crimes represents a significant departure from the Anglo-American conception of justice. As my colleague, Marion Edwyn Harrison, Esq., wrote last year in his Washington Times commentary "Hate Law Pitfalls": "There is great danger in changing the common law and the tradition of American law to increase penalties or to make unlawful the commission of an act because the criminal had some motive -- especially a political motive -- unrelated to the damage the criminal seeks to do by committing the act."

Now the case in Philadelphia demonstrates how a Politically Incorrect viewpoint expressed in an assertive manner -- without violence -- can endanger one's right to Freedom of Speech. The British "hate speech" law with its open-ended definition is as troubling given our very similar conceptions of law. The Christians in Philadelphia who were arrested for simply expressing their beliefs were fortunate that the Judge took into account the real facts of the case. Others may not be so fortunate. Being a believing Christian was never supposed to be easy. Cases such as the one in Philadelphia and the possibility of a "hate speech" law being placed on the books in Britain are signs that it may become just that much harder.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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