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Hate Crime Laws: Are They Constitutional?

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Are hate crime penalty enforcement laws constitutional?

"That's Gay." If you are around teenagers today, that is a phrase you will most likely hear very often. It is not necessarily meant as a homophobic or hate-filled remark, and most of the time it is referring to an object, an idea, or a conversation; things that obviously have no sexual orientation. But now, according to a bill passed by the senate, it could almost be considered a hate crime. Many people support the widening of hate crime laws, assuming that with stricter penalties, the crimes will lessen. In June, 2004, Senate passed a bill that received a record number of votes, passing 65-33, including 18 Republicans voting yes. The measure will add sexual orientation, gender and disability to the list of motives that provide for enhanced federal prosecution of a violent crime against a person (Lochhead). The current hate crimes law, which originated during the civil rights movement of the 1960s when many Southern states failed to prosecute assaults on African Americans, includes crimes motivated by hatred based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Many see this as a step forward, but there are some who think it is unconstitutional. Religious groups argue that "It advances the radical, well publicized agenda of homosexuals to gain acceptance for, and legal recognition of, homosexuality as a normal lifestyle" (Toalston). So who's right? Should there be a separate category for crimes committed to minorities? Shouldn't all crimes be treated just as serious as another? I believe that the categorizing of crimes into Hate Crimes is just further segregating people because of their differences, and that paying more serious attention to crimes committed on minorities is sending a bad message to those who are in the majority.

First off, many people perceive hate crime perpetrators as crazed neo-Nazis or "skinheads". However, most hate crimes are carried out by otherwise law-abiding citizens who see little wrong with their actions. Alcohol and drugs sometimes help fuel these crimes, but the main determinant appears to be personal prejudice. New FBI data shows that the number of hate crimes reported in 2003 increased slightly, from 7,462 in 2002 to 7,489 in 2003. The 7,489 hate crime incidents reported to the FBI in 2003 involved 8,715 separate offenses affecting 9,100 victims (Kelotra). By far the largest determinant of hate crimes is racial bias, with 51.3 percent of all hate crimes falling under this category, followed by Religion bias (17.9 percent), Sexual Orientation bias (16.5 percent), Ethnicity bias (13.7 percent) and Disability bias (0.4 percent) (Kelotra).

According to FBI Uniform Crime reports, there were 30,606,332 crimes reported in 2003. So is it fair that 7,489 of them were treated with top-priority because of the person's race, religion, or sexual orientation? The Southern Baptist Convention's ethic agency doesn't think so, and they're doing their best to try to reverse the bill that widens hate crime laws. "Existing laws in every state cover real crimes of violence, vandalism and property destruction, which should be punished to the full extent of the law" they argue (Toalston). Others argue that the bill is simply redundant. "What is really being punished, as [critics] see it, is a criminal's thoughts, however objectionable they may be. The actions - incitement, vandalism, assault, murder - are already against the law" (Haberman).

For every group against the defining of hate crimes, there are twice as many groups who feel it is more than necessary. "Hate crimes are message crimes. They are different from other crimes in that the offender is sending a message to members of a certain group that they are unwelcome" (McDevitt). While the constitution promises us free speech, it doesn't allow us to use that as a weapon to put certain groups in fear. As much as everybody has a right to voice their opinion, everyone also has a right to live their life in peace without discrimination.

Another critical issue in hate crime is that studies indicate that hate crimes appear to have more serious psychological effects on the victims and the communities they represent than other crimes. Research shows that victims of hate crimes many times link their vulnerability to their personal, cultural, or spiritual identity. The result of this is that victims of hate crimes often suffer greater and more permanent emotional trauma than other crime victims. So while a victim of assault could potentially get over the act, a person who was assaulted because of their race can never just "get over" their skin color and the trauma it brought.

A very important effect this bill may have, some fear, is that it may prohibit some preaching against homosexuality from a scriptural standpoint. "Religious liberty would be threatened as gay and lesbian activists seek to use this legislation in an attempt to punish those who preach homosexuality is a sin according to Scripture" (Knight). It is no secret that many religions consider homosexuality a sin, and it is a valid concern that some activists may attempt to prosecute preachers of that belief for sermons or testimonies they may give speaking out against it. Under the new bill, the leader of a congregation that speaks out against homosexuality will basically be in the same category as the headmaster of a KKK group, which is obviously unfair. While religious groups know and preach that hate crimes are wrong and immoral, ALL crimes are wrong and immoral. So the difference between the two is dependent

on a personal prejudice you have for the victim of the crime, and they argue that personal prejudice should not be illegal.

So who is right? Should groups be awarded extra protection because they are in the minority? Or is it unconstitutional to punish criminals more harshly because of the nature of their victims? The argument could go on for as long the Abortion topic. Personally, I'm torn between the two sides. I somewhat agree with the Baptist

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