By Amy Doolittle
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Jokes about political correctness have been around for more than a decade, and many Americans now take for granted conflicts over manger scenes on public property and Christmas carols in public schools. Hostility toward religious expression is no joke, however, to advocates concerned that "hate crimes" laws could be used to rob Americans of religious freedom, which they say is already the case in some parts of Europe. Exhibit A: Ake Green, a Swedish pastor who was arrested for speaking against homosexuality from his church pulpit.
While American hate-crime laws currently punish criminal acts motivated by bigotry, William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, says the principle behind such statutes could be "worse than a slippery slope" toward restricting fundamental freedoms. "In the '40s, '50s, '60s and even '70s, we were taught that the difference between the free world and the communist bloc was that in the free world if you committed a crime, you were going to go to jail for what you did, but in the Soviet Union and other countries, you would go to jail for what you thought," Mr. Murray said. "Hate-crimes laws are not really hate-crimes laws — they are really hate-thought laws," Mr. Murray says. "We have a movement in the entire Western world ... for people to go to jail for what they think." It is not mere speculation to think that hate-crimes laws could be used to quash free speech, he says, citing an October protest in Philadelphia. On "National Coming Out Day," a Christian group held a demonstration on a public walkway outside a homosexual-activism event called "Outfest." Protesters at the Oct. 10 event were informed by police that they could stand wherever they wanted, since the festival was being held on public sidewalks. However, when their demonstration was interrupted by a group called "the Pink Angels," the police ordered the Christian group to relocate and later arrested them. Ten of the demonstrators were held for 21 hours and released; one member of the group was held for 10 days because of confusion involving an outstanding parking ticket. All were charged with eight criminal counts, including "ethnic intimidation," a second-degree felony. The Philadelphia case, says Mr. Murray, is the perfect example of the "hate crime" mentality gone bad. The movement from a "hate crime" to a "hate thought" is "worse than a slippery slope," Mr. Murray says. "A slippery slope you go down slowly — this thing is a cliff. These people were peaceably demonstrating, but they were demonstrating for something that was politically incorrect." That the Philadelphia demonstrators were charged with a hate crime based on speech does not fall in line with the specifics of Pennsylvania's law against ethnic intimidation, says Brain Fahling, attorney for the protesters. He says they will not be convicted of the charged crimes because they didn't commit them. "The ethnic-intimidation law has conduct associated with it, which means that to be guilty of it requires something more than speech," Mr. Fahling says. A videotape made by an independent San Francisco film company of the protest and subsequent arrest shows no hate actions at all, says Mr. Fahling, just a group of people proclaiming their religious beliefs. "There is nothing in that videotape that would demonstrate that my clients did anything other than exercise the rights the constitution allows them to exercise," he says. But Christians aren't the only ones who think that hate-crimes law should not dictate thoughts. Joe Perez, owner and contributing writer of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog (www.gayspirituality.typepad.com) says he understands that every person has a right to speak what he or she thinks to be true, even if it makes him uncomfortable. "Hate speech is not a behavior that I ... want to see made illegal. The line that's drawn in the United States is generally between the speech that is simply offensive to a great number of people and speech that incites violence within a group — and that's a line that I feel comfortable with," Mr. Perez says. "If someone says that I think a group is wrong, or a group is acting immorally, or a group is wicked, or evil or condemned to hell, I may find that offensive and objectionable, but I don't think it should be illegal." In fact, as Mr. Perez argues that condemning Christians for speaking against homosexuals is no different than condemning homosexuals for speaking against Christians. "Can you imagine the outrage if a Christian fundamentalist intruded in a private gathering of queer activists, overheard a speaker say, 'Fundamentalism represents an abnormal, a horrible, cancerous tumor in the body of society,' reported him to the authorities, and then the laws of our land permitted the speaker to be arrested and imprisoned for a month?" he writes on his Web log. "That speaker would become a martyr and hero to the cause, a victim of the unjust, evil times in which we live and rage would ferment against our 'enemies' and all that they represent." Mr. Perez also warns that laws that punish ideas are not only unfair, but are counterproductive. "Using the laws of a state to imprison folks who do not understand or agree with us, or who say mean-spirited things, cannot create a culture that makes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks safer and more secure," he says. "Instead, it will taint all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activism with the stench of extreme political correctness gone amok."