Religious Speech Amendment Added To Hate Crimes Bill

The National Religious Broadcasters Friday (NRB) praised passage of a religious speech-related amendment to hate crimes legislation, while the ACLU said the overall bill still lacked sufficient First Amendment protections.

The religious amendment was adopted Thursday night (July 16) by a vote of 78 to 13, according to NRB, after which the underlying hate crimes bill was approved by a voice vote. The bill would raise to a federal offense certain crimes that could be tied to "race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability," according to ACLU.

NRB has opposed the hate crimes bill because it fears protected religious speech--on abortion or homosexuality, for example--could be subject to prosecution. ACLU also argues the bill threatens

The amendment, which was introduced by Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), essentially clarifies that speech from the pulpit, electronic or otherwise, remain protected unless its intent was to cause violence.

The amendment says that nothing "shall be construed or applied in a manner that infringes the rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or substantially burdens any exercise of religion (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), speech, expression, association, if such exercise of religion was not intended to 1) plan or prepare for an act of physical violence or 2) incite an imminent act of physical violence against another."

There could still be some room for concern in the "incite" portion of that caveat. NRB Senior V.P. and General Counsel Craig Parshall said the hate crimes legislation was still bad policy and that the amendment would make abusive prosecutions "less likely."

But without that amendment, he said, "our Christian communicators would face an unbridled, vicious juggernaut of censorship, where federal criminal ‘hate crime' laws could be used to shut-down free speech and religious expression."

ACLU agreed with the threat of censorship, but saw the Senate and House bills differently. "The Senate version of the hate crimes bill lacks the strong protections for speech and association included in legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June," the ACLU said in a statement Friday. "The American Civil Liberties Union believes that without the speech and
association protections included in the House bill, the Senate hate crimes legislation could have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech and membership...An otherwise unremarkable violent crime should not become a federal hate crime simply because the defendant visited the wrong website, belonged to a group espousing bigotry, or subscribed to a magazine promoting discriminatory views, however wrong and repugnant those beliefs may be."

The House hate crimes bill, which has no amendment on religious speech, has already passed, while the Senate version that passed this week is an amendment on the defense authorization bill. That bill is must-pass legislation, but it has not passed yet, and when it does it will have to go to conference committee, where the hate crimes portion must be reconciled with the House version.

Under the Bush administration, a similar hate crimes bill similarly attached to must-pass defense authorization legislation was eventually stripped out in conference, but it is widely expected to have a better chance in this Congress, with a president willing to sign it.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.