Craig Parshall, General Counsel


Hate Crimes and the Half Gospel

October 21, 2009

One of the truly fierce (though largely ignored) threats posed by the hate crimes law that is now certain to be passed by the Senate in the next few days and sent to President Obama for his signature has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Granted, homosexual advocacy groups backed the legislation, and it contains special protections for persons who say they have been victimized because of their “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” NRB has vigorously opposed this bad bill from the beginning, not only because of that issue, but on multiple grounds. Of course, we denounce not only hate in all its forms, but all violence against innocent persons as well because they are inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ. NRB has been sounding the alarm that this new federal hate crimes approach could stifle not only religious expression on the issue of homosexuality, but also on the issue of religion in general. A greater threat to religious liberty on the current landscape would be hard to imagine.

I was reminded of this when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a Washington speech last Saturday night, and while praising the soon-to-be passed hate crimes law, he made special mention of the fact that Muslims feel “isolated” in America and “discriminated against.” Stunningly, in the wake of the upcoming hate crimes law, Attorney General Holder went on to pronounce a radical new definition of crime: “We will…prosecute criminal acts of discrimination wherever we find them.” Hitherto, “discrimination” has largely been treated as a violation of civil law, not a criminal offense. Our new Attorney General also noted that it is “a difficult time to be a Muslim in America,” and added that “[t]he tension that arises among citizens of different faiths…is unacceptable to me.” Does that mean that Evangelicals should preach only half a Gospel? While Christians should never be deliberately offensive, we also know that when we share our faith with Muslims (or other faith groups), the Gospel message that we communicate may well be deemed to be offensive. That shouldn’t be surprising. Check out the missionary journeys of Paul in the Book of Acts and note the whirlwind of controversy that followed him everywhere he preached.

Islamic groups have been active in supporting the hate crimes law because it makes it a federal crime to commit a hate offense against a person because of his or her “religion.” In light of that, Christian communicators need to “gird” themselves for legal battles ahead. The first step is to understand what the hate crimes law really does and does not provide, and to eschew some of the misstatements abounding on that subject. Unlike those other portions of the hate crimes law where it is studded with references to the First Amendment (which may be largely ineffective), the amendment added by Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) adopts the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) paradigm previously passed by Congress, which has enjoyed a very good track record in the courts for liberating religious expression. The RFRA language was passed to reverse the disastrous assault on the Free Exercise of Religion caused by a 1990 decision of the Supreme Court. Later, the High Court recognized that RFRA had indeed worked a “substantive” protection for the Free Exercise of Religion.

The second step is to recognize that the Brownback amendment will do us no good if we cower in apprehension. Christian communicators should boldly proclaim the whole truth of the whole Gospel, come what may. Boldness, not timidity, should be our calling-card. They should also know that NRB will vigorously defend its members if they are wrongly prosecuted under this new hate crimes law, and I know that Christians can also count on the other Christian civil liberty groups that worked with me on the Brownback amendment to do the same.