Mad Men: Uphill Political Battles in Washington Have Religious Right Leaders Foaming at the Mouth

Article excerpt

Eleven years ago, a 21-year-old college student in Wyoming was robbed, severely beaten, tied to fence and left to die.

The vicious murder of Matthew Shepard shocked the nation. The slightly built, soft-spoken young man was gay, and it soon came to light that his killers, Aaron J. McKinney and Russell A. Henderson, had targeted Shepard because of his sexual orientation.

Bill Clinton, president at the time, called for federal hate-crimes legislation to make it possible for the federal government to respond in cases like the Shepard murder. Although many in Congress agreed, the measure couldn't make it through the House of Representatives and Senate. It was periodically reintroduced during the presidency of George W. Bush but failed every time.

The political situation changed dramatically after the election of Barack Obama. Democrats in Congress championed the bill, and on Oct. 28, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 into law. (Byrd, an African American, was chained to a pickup truck and dragged to death in June of 1998.)

Gay-rights activists, families of violent crime victims and many other Americans celebrated the action. But there was one segment of the population that was definitely not pleased: the Religious Right.

In the weeks and months leading up to the vote, Religious Right groups unleashed a torrent of hysterical and misleading claims. They stated repeatedly that the measure would penalize "thought crimes" and make it illegal for conservative pastors and their flocks to criticize homosexuality.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, called the measure "a slap in the face of our servicemen and women" because it was attached to a Defense Department appropriations bill.

"This hate crimes provision is part of a radical social agenda that could ultimately silence Christians and use the force of government to marginalize anyone whose faith is at odds with homosexuality," Perkins fumed.

The Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) released a string of outraged e-mail messages attacking the measure. One of them called the bill "one of the most dangerous laws in the history of the United States."

The AFA quoted a Pennsylvania pastor named Michael Marcavage who said, "What this bill does is [seek] to shut down those who dare to speak against the sin of homosexuality with the hope and freedom that is found in Jesus Christ."

Shuttered churches and jailed pastors? Would the Shepard bill really do that--and could it somehow trump the First Amendment?

Not at all, say critics of the Religious Right, In fact, no provisions in the bill criminalize any form of speech. Two separate sections in the legislation plainly state that nothing in it is designed to inhibit free speech, freedom of religion or other constitutionally protected rights.

The new law focuses on violent acts, not speech, giving the federal government new tools to assist state and local law enforcement in cracking down on crimes motivated by bias. It also offers relief to cash-strapped communities facing the high costs associated with prosecuting these crimes.

In many ways, the bill promotes "tough on crime" policies that conservatives claim to champion. Permitting the federal government to step in can ensure that perpetrators of assault, murder and other crimes receive stiff sentences if state or local officials fail to pursue cases vigorously.

In May of 2007, a 20-year-old South Carolina man was attacked outside a Greenville bar by an assailant who made anti-gay slurs. Sean Kennedy fell to the ground after being struck, hit his head and was pronounced brain dead the next day.

Kennedy's assailant, Stephen Andrew Moller, then 18, was charged with murder, but local authorities reduced the charge to manslaughter. Moller served less than two years behind bars. …