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Hate Crimes Don't Respect Life

Lack of Authority

Attitude Adjustment Needed

The increasing number of reported hate crimes and some well-publicized attacks last year have focused renewed attention on hate-crimes laws.

In June James Byrd, a black man, was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death in east Texas. Then in October Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming, died as a result of being brutally beaten. The accused killers of Byrd and Shepard are young men in their 20's and 30's.

About a week after Matthew Shepard's funeral, Dr. Barnett Slepian, a physician who performed abortions, was gunned down in his New York home. The hostile language used by some pro-lifers was blamed for leading to his murder.

When the U.S. bishops met the next month, they condemned abortion—along with violence against abortion clinics and physicians who perform abortions. At that meeting the bishops also urged dioceses to help end racism in the Church and across the nation, calling it a sinful scar on religious and secular life.

Federal legislation was introduced in 1997 in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R.3081) and the U.S. Senate (S.1529). The proposed Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) would set penalties for persons who willfully cause or attempt to cause bodily injury because of actual or perceived "race, color, religion, national origin,...gender, sexual orientation or disability of any person...."

Critics point out some limitations in this draft: It doesn't cover property crimes such as black-church arsons and defacing homes of Jewish people with anti-Semitic messages. Also, in order to justify federal involvement, prosecutors would have to prove there was an interstate or foreign commerce connection with the crime.

In July Mark Bangerter, who survived a bias-motivated attack, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives hearing on HCPA. He explained that he was beaten unconscious last April in Boise, Idaho, because another man "perceived me to be gay." Bangerter's injuries include "permanent loss of vision in my left eye....Someone hated gay people enough to try to kill one. The irony is that I'm not gay. This happened because I hugged a friend" in a bar.

He says his attacker has not been caught, and he believes that "Boise police have not pursued my case satisfactorily." A letter he received from the F.B.I. explains "that sexual orientation does not fall within the listed elements of hate crimes [currently]. Therefore, the F.B.I. lacks the statutory authority to investigate the attacks against you."

Lack of Authority

The federal hate-crimes legislation that exists has its limitations. For example, the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) Web site ( says the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, in effect through 2002, doesn't give the F.B.I. the authority to act: It strictly "calls for states and localities to voluntarily report all hate crimes to the F.B.I." so it can compile statistics. HRC supports enactment of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act because state laws vary and many are not adequate to protect people "because of their real or perceived sexual orientation or gender."

Regarding sexual orientation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered" but stresses that homosexual persons "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination
in their regard should be avoided" (#2357-8).

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) addresses bias-motivated crimes on its Web site ( "Federal authorities must have jurisdiction to address those cases in which local authorities are either unable or unwilling to act." ADL acknowledges that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act "will not result in the elimination of these crimes," but a partnership between federal, state and local investigators "should prompt more effective state and local prosecutions."

Attitude Adjustment Needed

"You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," an ironic song from South Pacific, says,

"You've got to be taught before it's too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate..."

Many hate crimes are committed by young people, notes the Anti-Defamation League. But, with the attitude of a cockeyed optimist, ADL says youth are "still reachable and teachable."

To help us teach respect, ADL provides numerous resources, including a "Blueprint for Action," developed for the November 1997 White House Conference on Hate Crimes. Educational programs were introduced there to "promote tolerance and to combat the prejudice that lies at the root of bias-motivated crimes." In addition, many law-enforcement agencies and cities have developed policies and procedures that can be replicated in our schools and communities.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a hate-crimes victim whose birthday we celebrate this month, said, "Morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart but they can restrain the heartless." Like the respected civil-rights leader, we can support legislation to restrain and prosecute heartless behavior. In addition, we need to teach respect and tolerance by our own example.—M.J.D.

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