The nation's largest group of Christian media professionals warns that the expanded Hate Crimes bill currently before the Senate presents a serious risk of violating free speech rights of religious communicators.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act was introduced in the Senate last week just as the House passed its version in a 249-175 vote. It is expected to pass the Senate despite the protest from social conservative groups.
The legislation is intended by its sponsors to protect homosexuals and transgendered people from violent hate crimes by expanding a list of federally protected groups to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.
But the 1,400-member National Religious Broadcasters says Christian broadcasters and even pastors covering culturally unpopular views, such as preaching homosexuality as sin, could face prosecution just for expressing their religious views because their teachings could be blamed for inciting violence.
"Bottom line is we think that the bill under this language, while it's touted as something as designed to crack down on violence and hate-inspired crime, in fact can be used to prosecute non-violent crimes," NRB senior vice president and general counsel Craig Parshall told The Christian Post. "The bill has a chilling effect on the right of communicators to articulate and preach the full counsel of God."
Parshall said if the hate crimes legislation is made into law, Christian communicators could face prosecution for religious speech through already existing federal incitement and conspiracy laws.
For example, a prosecutor might argue that an attacker was inspired by a sermon against homosexuality and consider religious broadcasters or pastors who gave the message as "causal factors" in a violent crime.
And the extent of the hate crimes legislation goes beyond those who address homosexuality, Parshall argued. Christian communicators who preach on sexual sin in general, such as adultery, and the definition of marriage or teach apologetics that compare other religions to Christianity would also be at risk, he said.
The Senate version of the hate crimes bill targets alleged perpetrators who attempt to "cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person."
Parshall said the term "bodily injury" could be used to apply to mental trauma or mental or emotional impairment such as intimidation.
Although the Senate version contains provisions that appear to protect constitutional speech and free expression, Parshall contended they are just "nice political banter" for debate that are not substantial protection for free speech.
That's because the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals' interpretation of constitutional rights has been eroding to the point that the Court has eviscerated free expression, he argued.
"If it's ever a contest of the power of government on one hand and the person's right of religious expression, the government will always win," said Parshall.
Parshall said he has been working very closely with NRB vice president of government relations Bob Powers in meeting with senators and state representatives to insist that protections for Christian communicators be included in the bill.
It's what is not written that can later be used against religious speech, he said.
Legal groups specializing in constitutional rights, including the American Center for Law and Justice and Alliance Defense Fund, have also been working with the NRB to propose revised language for the bill.
So far, the groups are still looking for a senator to sponsor an amendment to change the language.
Parshall added that his biggest concern is not with the hate crimes legislation itself but the "ripple-out effect" after the bill is passed.
He noted that the Federal Communications Commission has before it a petition to investigate "hate" on conservative radio. Private employers could be pressured to accept workers regardless of sexual orientation, such as suggested in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Public education could also be affected, he said.
"The hate crimes bill is not only dangerous in itself but creates an environment of the censorship of ideas that are culturally unpopular," said Parshall.