Exodus, Meet The First Amendment

Exodus needs a lesson in basic high-school level Civics.

Jim Burroway

January 16th, 2007

Update: Mark, from Slapped Upsite The Head, left a comment to correct my feeble understanding of the intricacies of Canadian law. Meanwhile, Tor Billgren updates me via E-mail on the origin of Sweden’s hate speech law. Corrections and additions are noted below.

Many anti-gay organizations oppose extending hate crime laws to cover sexual orientation, claiming that to do so will take away their religious freedoms. Exodus added their voices to the chorus just yesterday by issuing this press release:

Today, as the nation celebrates Religious Freedom Day, Exodus International, the world’s largest ministry to those desiring freedom from unwanted homosexuality, joins pro-family groups around the nation in urging Congress to stop a hate crimes bill that would penalize those with faith-based beliefs about homosexuality.

Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, said, “Today, we celebrate a sacred right to freely practice our individual religious beliefs, and at the same time, Congress is debating legislation that could eventually destroy these freedoms. Hate crimes legislation does not prosecute illegal actions that harm others, it prosecutes beliefs about homosexuality that for many Americans, is consistent with their faith.”

This is utter nonsense. Nothing in the hate crime legislation prosecutes beliefs of any sort. Anyone can believe whatever they want to about sexual orientation, and anyone can say anything they want to about their beliefs.

Alan Chambers is displaying an abysmal ignorance about one of the most basic tenants of our constitution. While we already have hate crime legislation in place for categories of gender, race and religion, none of it even remotely affects speech or beliefs. And the reason is simple: our First Amendment protects our right to say pretty much anything we want, no matter how ugly, hateful, or factually wrong we may be.

That’s right. The Nazis are free to march in predominantly Jewish Skokie, IL (with the ACLU’s help, I might add) because of the First Amendment, and the Klan is free to spew hatred against racial minorities in Cleveland. You can advocate genocide, you can defend Al-Qaida, and you hurl any racist epithet you want. It won’t help your comedy career much, but you can’t be fined or jailed for it. As long as you’re not shouting fire! in a crowded theater or threatening to kill the president, you can say pretty much anything you want.

The courts and legislators at every level have been exceptionally diligent in protecting everyone’s right to say anything, no matter how stupid, hateful, or disgusting that speech may be judged by others. Hate crime legislation in the U.S. simply cannot criminalize speech. Our constitution forbids it right there, in our cherished First Amendment, something that Alan Chambers really ought to read sometime:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

He also ought to remember that he lives in Florida, not Canada, Australia, Sweden, or Britain:

Canada, Australia, Sweden and other European nations have used hate crimes law to punish, even imprison preachers for speaking out against protected persons. Preachers have been fined or jailed in Canada and Sweden for quoting passages from the Bible about homosexuality. In England, a Christian was thrown in jail for passing out pamphlets with Bible verses condemning homosexual activity. In Philadelphia, eleven Christians were jailed for sharing a message from the Bible to a crowd of people attending a public pro-gay event.

Canada, Australia, Sweden and other European nations don’t have anything like our First Amendment. We’re quite exceptional in our absolute insistence on our infettered freedoms to say whatever we want. What happens elsewhere does not automatically happen here, nor can it. Our courts and constitution simply won’t allow it. If our laws can’t stop the Nazis and the Klan from marching, they won’t stop Exodus from denigrating gays and lesbians. Or exaggerating and lying about what has happened elsewhere.

Canada’s Bill C-250 criminalizes certain types of hate speech towards persons of any sexual orientation: homosexuals, bisexuals, or bisexuals. In other words, it protects everyone equally. But there is a clause, known in Canadian law as a “not withstanding” clause, which specifically exempts religiously motivated speech. In other words, religious freedom always trumps hate speech in Canada according to this particular law.

Sweden has a similar law that protects people from “unfavorable speech,” and like the Canadian law, it protects everyone equally: homosexuals, bisexuals, and heterosexuals. Swedish journalist Tor Billgren, who writes the blog Antigayretorik, was angered by Chambers’ press release. Defending his beloved Sweden, he e-mailed me to say that while they have hate speech laws there, no preacher has been fined or jailed for quoting the Bible:

Pastor Åke Green was sentenced to 1 month inprisonment by the district court, but was aquitted by the court of appeal and the supreme court. He wasn’t jailed. There’s another case as well: Leif Liljeström, a christian (not a preacher) who owned a discussion forum on the web. He was sentenced to 1 month for things another person wrote on the forum (according to the swedish law the owner of the forum is responsible). However, this wasn’t quotes from the Bible, but extreme hate speach. This case will be dealt with by the supreme court. He hasn’t been jailed.

(Update) Sweden’s hate speech law goes back to 1948, when it was origionally written in response to the Holocaust. Laws like these limiting hate speech are quite common in many European countries. But that’s because their constitutions allow such laws to exist. Ours doesn’t.

Britain is a separate case altogether. The U.K. has no written constitution, nor does it have anything like our Bill of Rights. If I remember, that was one of the sore points between us more than two hundred years ago. While we may think of Britain as a free country, there is, in fact, no constitutional protections of free speech whatsoever. Consequently, Britain has a long history of banning all sorts of speech. As recently as 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government banned the broadcast of all appearances and interviews of members of Sinn Fein and the IRA. (According to the BBC, “instead of hearing Gerry Adams, viewers and listeners would hear an actor’s voice reading a transcript of the Sinn Fein leader’s words.”). You just try to get that past our Constitution here.

And as proof further that our First Amendment protects everyone, each of the eleven Christians from Repent America who were jailed in Philadelphia “for sharing a message from the Bible” — messages that were lovingly shouted through bullhorns — saw all of their charges dropped. Why? It’s simple. As it was with the Klan and the neo-Nazi’s, their actions were protected by the First Amendment.

To defend our freedoms, sometimes some pretty disagreeable people wind up paying a price. That is unfortunate, but as we all know, freedoms aren’t free. Freedom of speech is only meaningful when that speech is offensive, and Repent America, Fred Phelps, the Klan and Nazi’s have all advanced the cause of free speech for the rest of us by being thoroughly offensive and disgusting. I guess we have to give them that. Exodus can thank them as well.

The hate crime laws that Congress in considering doesn’t address speech for one simple reason: It can’t. For Exodus to claim otherwise shows an abysmal ignorance of the law — or dishonesty. It’s one of the other. Take your pick.

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