This week, I was perusing a Facebook page authored by former adherents to Islam who decided to leave it and who are now following Jesus. As I did, I couldn't help but think about statements made recently by a Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutor who suggested that postings against the Muslim community on social networking sites could constitute a civil rights crime. The statements were made by Bill Killian, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, who had been interviewed in anticipation of Tuesday's public meeting in that state where he was to address what he called the "consequences" under federal law for certain anti-Islamic expression. At the public meeting, the DOJ lawyer described the criminal cases he has already brought and will continue to bring under the federal hate crimes law for "acts against the Arab-Muslim" community.
All of this has ignited a significant debate over the First Amendment and adds to the mounting evidence that the DOJ views so-called "hate speech" on certain issues – particularly negative comments about Islam or homosexuality, for example – as a potential civil rights crime.
This is a shockingly dismal view of free speech, particularly coming from America's chief federal law enforcers. But this trend may be explained, in part, by the special deference that the DOJ has granted to Muslim and gay rights groups in particular. Both of those groups were prime lobbyists, along with the Obama Administration, for the passage of the federal hate crimes law. Furthermore, over the last few years, Justice Department officials have been tasked to conduct an unprecedented public relations campaign with Muslim organizations, such as the one that co-sponsored Tuesday's event in Tennessee. And when ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), a gay rights bill, came up in the Senate, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez testified in strong support and decried what he has described as a history of discrimination against homosexuals in the workplace. I testified at that same hearing, pointing out how ENDA would violate the constitutional rights of Christian employers – a concern that was not shared by the DOJ. When Mr. Perez appeared before another congressional committee in July 2012, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) asked him point-blank whether he or his DOJ associates would ever entertain "criminalizing speech" if it is directed against a particular religion. Perez refused to discount that possibility.
Here at NRB, we have been warning the public for years about the way in which hate crimes laws can be used to suppress particular kinds of legitimate free speech. There has been a disturbing shift among some policymakers in Washington and the government lawyers who work for them – one that evidences a low view of historic liberties and a high-handed view that the Bill of Rights may have to give way to shifting social and political needs. But this debate takes on a very personal face when one reads the posts on Facebook from ex-Muslims who are now Christians, such as the ones I came across this week. On the Facebook page I visited, the authors were clearly referring to the threat of violence that faces Jesus followers who leave Islam, likening those threats to what the Bible says about the devil, who is "like a roaring lion" (I Peter 5:8). The Facebook user's posting was cleverly comparing Islamic attempts at intimidation of Christians to the tactics of the Evil One, who tries to "frighten the children of God with his mighty roar."
So we must ask: Would such statements now be a crime under this new, diminished view of the First Amendment? Would the DOJ consider that posting to be a "hate crime"?
At the end of that Facebook post, the writer ends the analogy between violent Islam and the strategies of Satan by asking the readers: "Got it?" Another post below it, clearly from another ex-Muslim who is now a Jesus follower, replies this way: "Got it."
The Gospel message of God's saving grace is too precious a commodity to be bartered away in exchange for the new brand of anti-free speech political correctness. Those who follow Christ are not haters; they follow a Redeemer who is both Truth and Love, and Who commands us to embody both at all costs, to exercise our liberty to do so, and, I believe, to fight for that right as long as it is still day.
By Craig Parshall
Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters
Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech
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Published: June 6, 2013