Act against hate

It’s been a long time coming.

The recent enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act marks the first time that federal law has specifically protected our gay and lesbian citizens. Without a doubt, it’s a landmark.

When two brothers firebombed three Sacramento synagogues in 1999, the victims of their crimes weren’t just the members of Congregation B’nai Israel, Kenesset Israel Torah Center and Congregation Beth Shalom. They committed a crime—arson—but it was also intended to send a message that Jews were not safe in Sacramento.

Under this new federal hate crimes law, such a crime is still arson. The hate crime designation simply makes clear in the law a reality that has always been a fact of sentencing and charging crimes: Motive matters. We don’t need a criminologist to tell us that there’s a difference between the person who commits manslaughter and the person who commits premeditated murder. The law makes provisions for degrees of crime, particularly in sentencing.

But when the motive for a crime is hatred of an entire group of people—race, gender, ethnicity and, yes, real or perceived sexual orientation—the entire community is victimized, because hate crimes undermine the trust between citizens.

What’s more, hate crimes function to keep the members of a particular social group “in their place.” No African-American in the United States fails to grasp the message sent by a hangman’s noose. In the same way, a swastika painted on a building sends a clear message to a member of any group that suffered under the Nazi regime, but particularly to Jews.

And attacking someone based on his or her sexual orientation also sends a message to an entire community. We have not forgotten Satender Singh in Sacramento.

But one does not necessarily need to be a member of the targeted group to be affected by a hate crime. It was not only Jewish Sacramentans who were hurt by the arsons committed against local houses of worship, nor did only gay people mourn Singh.

There are some who fear that this law will infringe upon their First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religious belief.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Any adult is well aware of the difference between thoughts, speech and actions. We also have a long history of well-defined case law that makes clear the difference between speech and act. It is not illegal to hate. It’s not illegal to write or speak that hate. It’s not illegal to preach that hate, if you belong to a church that is so inclined. It is important to understand that this new law makes no act a crime that was not already a crime under existing law.

What’s changed is the judicial system’s ability to consider motive in sentencing those crimes in which the victim was selected because of membership in a specific group.

The Shepard and Byrd act is very simple and, unfortunately, still very necessary.