Do hate crimes merit special laws?

Below is an excerpt from "On Faith," an Internet feature sponsored by The Washington Post and Newsweek. Each week, more than 50 figures from the world of faith engage in a conversation about an aspect of religion. This week's question: Congress is expected to expand federal hate crimes laws to add "sexual orientation" to a list that includes "race, color, religion or national origin." Is this necessary? Should there be special laws against crimes motivated by intolerance, bigotry or hatred? Isn't a crime a crime?

"There is far more hate than there are crimes. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a necessary step in better protecting a group of Americans that is all too often targeted for attack simply because of who they are. That we find ourselves on the cusp of seeing this historic legislation signed into law is a testament to the fact that the American people recognize the hatred in our midst and want to challenge it where it happens.

"All crimes are not equal. We see this not only in how our legal framework metes out punishments based on the crimes committed, but in how we as individuals are affected by some crimes more or less than others. The issue of hate crimes is far more than a law-and-order issue; it is also a moral and religious issue."

— Welton Gaddy Leader, Interfaith Alliance

"It takes a special kind of hate to make a hate crime. It takes the kind of hate that targets a whole community through the torture and death of one of its members. In religious terms, this makes such a crime not just a sin, but evil. In the language of law, it makes it a hate crime. ...

"It is especially important to expand and strengthen hate crimes legislation. As the fine work of the Southern Poverty Law Center continues to document, a renewed climate of hate is on the rise in this country: 'After virtually disappearing from public view a decade ago, the antigovernment militia movement is surging across the country — fueled by fears of a black president, the changing demographics of the country and fringe conspiracy theories increasingly spread by mainstream figures.'

"Hate is on the rise. The very fabric of our society is at risk."

— Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Professor, Chicago Theological Seminary

"I'm somewhat conflicted over this issue, because I certainly support laws that prohibit acts of discrimination. A hotel owner should not be allowed to deny accommodation to African-Americans, gays or women, even if the owner says it is against his religious beliefs to associate with such people. The more serious problem in criminal cases, I think, is that race, color, religion or sexual orientation of the participants may sway a jury. For example, an atheist who refuses to swear an oath with his hand on the Bible and states his legal preference to simply affirm would undoubtedly prejudice some on the jury. Or, more accurately, the jury would probably act on its prejudices.

"I don't see what we can do about such legal injustices, other than use our free-speech rights to dissuade those who discriminate. We would all be better served if they turned their hatred toward a more loving orientation."

— Herb Silverman

President, Secular Coalition for America

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