At the beginning of every Congress, every member of this august body takes an oath to “defend and protect the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is an oath that I am proud that the majority of the citizens of the 13th Congressional District of Michigan have honored me with their vote for more than 12 years. One of the most important duties that I have as a Member of the United States House of Representatives is to protect and defend its citizens, which is precisely what H.R. 1592, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, introduced by my fellow Michigander and Detroiter, one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, Jr., does. This bill protects all Americans from bias-motivated violence; it provides funds so that local authorities can tackle the tough challenge of hate crimes, and it protects the First Amendment to the Constitution. It does not criminalize speech or thoughts, it does not give some people “special rights,” and it is not anti-Christian.
As a child and as a proud Christian, the least common denominator of all of the lessons that I learned from my parents and minister is about God’s ethic of love. Along that, I learned from the practices of my parents and my minister our divine responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves. Indeed, it is out of my love that all of my brothers and sisters, and the activism that Jesus Christ illustrated through loving His enemies, through His compassion for the poor, the down trodden, and those who seek justice, that I became an activist, a state legislator, and now a Member of Congress. It is that thirst for justice for all human beings that drives all that I do, while guided by unerring and infinite wisdom and faith in God.
Despite the teachings of my parents and that of countless clergy—of all religions—around our nation, there are some who perpetrate crime with hatred and bigotry in their hearts. Who can forget that, during the civil rights era, the murders of the courageous Medgar Evers? Who can forget the killing of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman for merely registering African Americans to vote? Who can forget the murder of native Detroiter Viola Liuzzo, who was gunned down as she drove civil rights workers to voting booths? All of these crimes, motivated by some bias, were ultimately prosecuted under federal laws because, at the time, local authorities were either unable or unwilling to prosecute these crimes. These crimes could only be prosecuted because all of these individuals were participating in activities protected by the federal government—helping individuals vote or register to vote, for example. Only in limited, specific instances does this law even apply.
I voted in support of H.R. 1592 because this bill sends a powerful message that all crime motivated by hatred and bias will not be tolerated in our society. I have voted for this bill at every opportunity when it came before the U.S. Congress. This legislation strengthens federal law by providing local authorities with more money to prosecute hate crimes and by expanding the jurisdiction to crimes motivated by bias against the victims’ actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
Unfortunately, opponents of this bill are shamelessly advancing false claims about the bill’s impact on religion, particularly the freedom of clergy to preach about their beliefs, and that the bill legalizes certain sexual acts. Both of these claims are patently false. If you are a minister, this bill does not restrict any sermon, homily, speech, or lesson unless that minister plans to start urging people to go out and commit violent crimes against others. During floor debate on the bill, Chairman Conyers reiterated the fact that the bill would not legalize any one of a plethora of sexual acts or activity, most of which are already illegal in most states.
Again, this bill in no way, shape, or fashion restricts free speech. Indeed, it clearly states, and has been supported by a Republican dominated, conservative Supreme Court, that it in fact protects the First Amendment. Language is protected under this bill. Actions are criminalized. Preaching against homosexuality, against disabled people, against women—the categories that this bill protects—is allowed as it has always been, under the protections of the First Amendment. Under this bill, it would be criminal to incite violence by willfully causing “bodily injury based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim or is a violation of the state, local, or tribal hate crime laws.”
Since 1991, over 100,000 hate crimes have occurred in our nation. Hate crimes devastate the communities, counties, cities, and states in which they occur. These crimes of bigotry and hatred against an identifiable minority—based on race, color, ethnic origin, gender, disability or sexual orientation—not only hurt the individual affected, but demoralize and dehumanize whole groups of people. As the civil rights era clearly illustrated, these crimes are committed solely to intimidate and trample upon the human rights of others. This has the immediate effect of crushing the investment of companies in that locality, of tourists visiting that state, of individuals wanting to relocate to that region. This is measurable in real dollars and cents. The federal government cannot stand by and allow these heinous, horrible offenses to be committed. I did not stand for this when I was an activist fighting for human rights in the City of Detroit, Michigan; I will not stand for it as a Member of Congress with an opportunity to make a change and make a difference.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel once said that “indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor—never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she is forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refuges—not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”
In the past decade, our country has had men murdered merely because they were gay, disabled, or African American. These were all hard-working, tax-paying, law abiding American citizens, killed because of these differences. As we move onward through this new millennium, as we continue to change course, confront crises, and continue the legacy, I will do so with the continued guidance and love of an infinite God, with extraordinary hope, with profound faith, and with the knowledge that in caring for the least of our brothers and sisters, we care for ourselves. We cannot afford to be indifferent.
As we celebrate two centuries of the end of the African Slave Trade, it is my hope that today will be the beginning of the end of the decades of mindless hatred, bigotry, and discrimination against all God’s children. All Americans have an investment in a stable, violence free government, and that is exactly what this bill provides.
Neither the Catt Center nor Iowa State University is affiliated with any individual in the Archives or any political party. Inclusion in the Archives is not an endorsement by the center or the university.