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Topics In the News
 
Federal Appeals Court Rejects Challenge to Hate Crimes Act
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 08/03/12
Last updated on: 08/03/12
 
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President Obama at a celebration of his signature of hate crimes legislation.

In a decision released August 2, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a challenge to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the 2009 law that makes it a federal crime to assault an individual because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. The lawsuit was brought by Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan and three Michigan ministers who claimed that the law violated their free speech rights to denounce homosexuality.

In upholding the September 2010 decision of a U.S. District Court in Michigan that had ruled that the ministers lacked standing to challenge the law, the Appellate Court called the lawsuit "unnecessary" and merely "a political statement." A concurring decision criticized the briefs filed by the Thomas More Legal Center for misrepresenting the legislative history of the Act.

Glenn, head of the American Family Association of Michigan, and pastors Levon Yuille, René B. Ouellette and James Combs alleged that the law would lead to their criminal prosecution for expressing anti-gay religious beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.

In their 2010 lawsuit, the pastors claimed that they have a religious obligation "to state clearly the immoral nature of homosexuality," which requires them to "publicly denounce homosexuality, homosexual activism, and the homosexual agenda as being contrary to God's law and His divinely inspired Word."

The appeals court, in an opinion by Judge James S. Gwin, said the pastors lacked standing to sue, because the law prohibits only "willfully causing bodily injury."

"The Act does not prohibit Plaintiffs' proposed course of hateful speech," Judge Gwin wrote.

Gwin said the lawsuit marshaled "no actual facts to support an assertion that the government has taken or intends to take any investigatory actions under the Act against those merely engaging in protected speech."

The decision upholding the district court's ruling was unanimous. But Judge Jane B. Stranch added a tartly-worded concurrence in which she criticizes the misrepresentations by the plaintiffs of the legislative history of the Act and of the Attorney General's comments about enforcement. She exposes a number of factual errors and misrepresentations in the briefs submitted by the plaintiffs. In other words, they are riddled with lies.

In rebuking the plaintiffs, Judge Stranch pithily observes, "The protection of religious speech is a bulwark built by our Constitution for the purpose of guarding a foundational right. But the safeguards provided by that bulwark include standards not only for laws that are enacted but also for those who seek to litigate the propriety of those laws."

The decision in Glenn, et al. v. Holder may be read here.

The Matthew Shepard and James W. Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named for a college student brutally murdered because of his sexuality and for a young Black man viciously murdered because of his race.

On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed the bill into law. It was the first federal bill that specifically recognized the civil rights of glbtq people. Fittingly, the parents of Matthew Shepard, Judy and Dennis Shepard, were present at the signing ceremony.

Later that day, Judy Shepard issued the following statement: "When Dennis and I started calling 10 years ago for federal action to prevent and properly prosecute hate crimes against gay, lesbian and transgendered Americans, we never imagined it would take this long. The legislation went through so many versions and so many votes that we had to constantly keep our hopes in check to keep from getting discouraged," she said. "We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly."

In the video below, President Obama speaks about the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act at a reception held after he signed the bill. He eloquently declared that "we must stand against crimes that are meant not only to break bones, but to break spirits--not only to inflict harm, but to instill fear."

 
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