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Calif. bill to ban officers tied to ‘hate groups,’ censor speech amended over religious freedom concerns

California State Capitol
California State Capitol building with state flag in Sacramento on a windy summer day with clear sky. |

A California bill that would ban police officers from being members of entities deemed as "hate groups" has been amended to clarify that the term does not apply to being part of conservative or Christian groups.

Assembly Bill 655, also known as the "California Law Enforcement Accountability Reform" or CLEAR Act, seeks to prohibit police officers from being affiliated with certain groups.

The proposed legislation had garnered criticism from conservative groups and others who say the bill is too broad in its definition of what constitutes a so-called hate group or hateful opinions or images.

As amended, the bill now states in part: 

“'Public expression of hate'” means any explicit expression, either on duty or off duty and while identifying oneself as, or reasonably identifiable by others as, a peace officer, in a public forum, on social media including in a private discussion forum, in writing, or in speech, [....] advocating for, supporting, or threatening the genocide of, or violence towards, any individual or group of persons based upon race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

"(2) 'Public expression of hate' also includes the public display of any tattoo, uniform, insignia, flag, or logo that indicates support for the denial of constitutional rights of, the genocide of, or violence towards, any group of persons based upon race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability."

In an interview with the San Francisco-based station KPIX, Democratic Assemblyman Ash Kalra, author of AB 655, said last week that he had amended the bill in response to concerns.

“We have put in amendments to remove the specificity regarding denial of constitutional rights. Because you do have the First Amendment right to be part of groups that may differ in opinion,” said Kalra.

Jonathan Keller, president of the California Family Council, which had been critical of AB 655, expressed his support for the amendments to the bill.

“We thank Assemblyman Kalra for listening to our concerns and revising AB 655 to respect the constitutional rights of peace officers,” Keller said Friday.

“Jesus said ‘there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ California Christians serving as police strive to sacrificially love their communities and treat every person with honesty and fairness. California should want more people of faith in law enforcement, not fewer.”

AB 655 was introduced in February in response to the Jan. 6 protests in Washington, D.C., and following concerns expressed by federal officials that extremists were infiltrating the National Guard and law enforcement.

"You have a constitutional right to have racist and bigoted views. You don’t have a constitutional right to be a police officer," stated Kalra in February, as reported by KCRA.

“The role and responsibility of peace officers is so important for a community healing — for a community’s safety — and the people in the community don’t feel that those that are entrusted with that responsibility look at them in a way that’s unbiased.”

As The Federalist reported last month, before the bill was amended, it defined hate speech as “as advocating or supporting the denial of constitutional rights of, the genocide of, or violence towards, any group of persons based upon race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

Critics argued that the bill, as it was originally written, could be used to fire any police officer who had opposed the legalization of gay marriage or abortion, or was critical transgender ideology.

They warned that the bill would also prohibit a member of the Roman Catholic Church from becoming a police officer since the Church recently reaffirmed its stance against same-sex unions.

David Levine, a constitutional law professor at the University of California Hastings, told KPIX last week before the bill was amended that it likely would not have survived a legal challenge.

“The definitions of a hate group, in particular, are so broad that it would encompass all sorts of groups that nobody would say would actually constitute some sort of a problematic hate group,” Levine said.

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