Americans who understand basic principles of justice have no problems with the hate crime bill known as the Matthew Shepard Act. This legislation, now awaiting a vote in the Senate, would finally protect the many citizens who are targeted for violence simply because of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and it would provide law enforcement the necessary resources to investigate bias-fueled brutality.
Unfortunately, some clergy across the nation have joined together to oppose this bill in an aggressive and divisive manner. For instance, conservative African-American leaders - most notably Bishop Harry Jackson of Maryland's Hope Christian Church - have been inundating the media and faith communities with the message that this legislation will allow police to storm into worship services and arrest clergy if they speak against being gay. They make the incendiary allegation that the bill will create "thought crimes" by punishing people for thinking ill of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
The truth is that the Matthew Shepard Act protects all First Amendment rights. And, although that is a given, this bill goes out of its way to protect the free speech of ministers. Those pastors who wish to continue condemning and dehumanizing the gay community will be free to do so.
The hate crimes bill provides resources for the investigation of violent actions - not beliefs, thoughts, or words. The proposed federal statute does not punish nor prohibit free expression of one's religious beliefs. As University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey R. Stone recently concluded, "The argument of the pastors that the proposed legislation in any way threatens their right to preach their version of the Gospel is, to be frank, ridiculous."
Despite the ridiculousness of their claims, the powerful and cash-rich antigay lobby continues to mold opinion against this legislation with fear and falsehoods. Leaders like Jackson have used provocative "thought crime" arguments to obscure the truth that, according to the FBI, 1,017 people were the targets of violent crimes in 2005 because of their sexual orientation.
Their rhetoric steals attention away from the stories of gay couples being viciously beaten for holding each other's hand in public or a flight attendant sought out to be heinously murdered simply because he was gay.
These preachers don't care to hear the thousands of stories of lives and communities scarred by antigay violence. And, conveniently, those who bring up the reality that the Matthew Shepard Act is a constitutional and important means to prevent antigay violence are labeled by these clergy as "anti-Christian." The good intentions of this legislation have been greeted by malice by these manipulators of fact.
The efforts of antigay preachers and their supporters is not the way to create the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a "Beloved Community" - where we all strive to treat each other with respect and compassion.
The way to start building such a community is to listen to the words of Gordon Smith, the Republican senator from Oregon who is cosponsoring the Matthew Shepard Act. Before his fellow senators, Smith declared, "I believe that the moral imperative that underpins hate crimes legislation is simply this, and it comes from sacred writ: that when people are being stoned in the public square, we ought to come to their rescue."
In supporting the noble imperatives of the Matthew Shepard Act, we all have the chance to work toward a community that protects and respects the lives and dignity of all citizens instead of bows to falsehoods and bigotry.
Cornel West is a professor at Princeton University. Dr. Sylvia Rhue is director of Religious Affairs at the National Black Justice Coalition in Washington.
© 2007 The Boston Globe