Three pastors and the head of a family association have filed suit challenging provisions of the Hate Crimes law passed by Congress last year and signed by President Barack Obama. Those provisions, which protect people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered from crimes motivated by bias against them, violates the religious leaders’ constitutional rights to speak out against what they say is immoral sexual conduct, the plaintiffs claim.
The lawsuit, listing Attorney General Eric Holder as the defendant, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center on behalf of Pastor Levon Yuille, Pastor Rene Ouellette, Pastor James Combs, and Gary Glenn, the president of the American Family Association of Michigan. It is the first constitutional challenge to the new hate crimes law’s provisions.
Lawyers for the religious leaders say that if they don’t prevail, they plan to appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court. A Justice Department spokesman told Main Justice that the government would “defend these vital protections in court.”
“The new federal hate crimes law protects Americans from perpetrators who turn prejudice into acts of violence,” said Alejandro Miyar. “Hate crimes seek to deny the humanity that we all share by victimizing whole communities.”
In their filing, the four conservatives say that the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act “elevates those engaged in certain deviant behaviors into a special, protected class of people under federal law.”
Citing George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and Bible passages and making frequent references to the “homosexual agenda,” the lawsuit says that Yuille, a black radio host, takes offense to equating gay rights with the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans.
The suit says that Holder “encourages, endorses, promotes and supports the homosexual agenda in his official capacity as Attorney General of the United States.”
At a meeting with reporters in December, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Thomas Perez said that his office was working to educate U.S. Attorneys about the protections included in the new hate crimes law. That law added additional classes of people who are protected from hate-based crimes. An earlier hate crimes law covered crimes against persons based on their race, color, religion, national origin or ethnicity.
A lawyer working on the Michigan lawsuit, Robert Muise, told Main Justice that he believed the hate crimes law would have a “chilling and inhibitory effect on the right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.” He said the law will be used to silence the debate on homosexuality by equating it with race in the eyes of the law.
Because he was not aware of any lawsuits using the new protections that have been filed by the government, Muise said the case is a pre-enforcement challenge. “One of the hurdles we’re going to have is showing standing, and cases where you’re alleging that there is a violation of your right to freedom of speech, the rules for standing are relaxed. Obviously we want to ensure we have laws that don’t have a chilling effect on speech.”
Asked about the comparison between protecting religious beliefs and gender identity, both of which Muise believes are a choice, he said that was like comparing apples and oranges.
“I have no evidence that hate crimes [laws protecting] somebody because of their religion has been used to squelch speech, protected speech, of individuals like hate crimes that provide as protected classes sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Muise. “I don’t see the threat like I see in other jurisdictions.”
“I don’t think you can equate the two things,” said Muise. “When you’re dealing with sexual orientation, what you’re really dealing with is deviant sexual behavior which is contrary to moral law, and I don’t equate that with somebody preaching the bible.”
The lawsuit claims that “plaintiffs are targets for government scrutiny, questioning, investigation, surveillance, and other adverse law enforcement actions and thus seek judicial reassurance that they can freely participate in their speech and related religious activities without being investigated or prosecuted by the government or becoming part of official records because of their Christian beliefs.”
The lawsuit is embedded below.