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Free to Preach Hate. For a Price.

I have Prometheus to thank for bringing to my attention this LA Times op-ed addressing the silliness of black ministers who claim that the hate crimes bill will stifle their freedom to preach anti-gay hatred from the pulpit.

A coalition of conservative African American pastors has aggressively lobbied against this legislation on the premise that it would make it unlawful for them to preach that homosexuality is a sin. Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., pastor of the Hope Christian Church in College Park, Md., for example, has asserted that the act would “keep the church from preaching the Gospel.”

… Of course, the pastors do not intend to assault anyone physically. Their claim, rather, is that they could be prosecuted merely for preaching against homosexuality. They fear that such sermonizing might be transmogrified by the law into an attempt to incite members of their congregations to lynch gays because of their sexual orientation.

… The 1st Amendment protects the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, the right of racists to assert that blacks are inferior, the right of atheists to denounce Christianity and the right of homophobes to condemn homosexuality. The argument of the pastors that the proposed legislation in any way threatens their right to preach their version of the Gospel is, to be frank, ridiculous.

Yes, these misguided (or just plain mean) minister retain all the same rights as the Nazis or the Klan. And, yes, it does tickle me to be able to make that comparison again, as I’ve done once or twice before. Men like Willie Wilson, Alfred Owens, Eddie Long, and Wellington Boone may fulminate against faggots as much as they like. In their God’s name even. But before they saddle up to ride with the Klann, I’d like to remind them of a couple of things.

Like what happened to Mulugeta Seraw.

Mulugeta Seraw died on Southeast 31st, a little way down the street from his apartment. An Ethiopian immigrant who drove a rental-car shuttle bus at the airport, Seraw was described as a “pure spirit” by one friend. He was beaten to death with a baseball bat wielded by Kenneth Mieske, a racist skinhead nicknamed “Ken Death.” Mieske hit Seraw on the back of the head from behind with the bat and hit him again and again after he fell to the pavement. Mieske’s friend Kyle Brewster was fighting with Seraw when Mieske arrived with his bat, and his friend Steve Strasser kicked Seraw’s prone body.

And what happened to Michael Donald.

In 1981 the trial of Josephus Andersonan, an African American charged with the murder of a white policeman, took place in Mobile. At the end of the case the jury was unable to reach a verdict. This upset members of the Ku Klux Klan who believed that the reason for this was that some members of the jury were African Americans. At a meeting held after the trial, Bennie Hays, the second-highest ranking official in the Klan in Alabama said: “If a black man can get away with killing a white man, we ought to be able to get away with killing a black man.”

On Saturday 21st March, 1981, Bennie Hays’s son, Henry Hays, and James Knowles, decided they would get revenge for the failure of the courts to convict the man for killing a policeman. They travelled around Mobile in their car until they found nineteen year old Donald walking home. After forcing him into the car Donald was taken into the next county where he was lynched.

In the case of Michael Donald, with the help of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Beulah Donald successfully sued the United Klans of America for $7 million; effectively breaking the back of the organization.

But what’s more relevant here is what happened after Mulugeta Seraw was murdered.

On Oct. 20, 1989, one day after the last of the three skinheads cut his deal with prosecutors, an Alabama civil-rights lawyer filed a civil suit in federal court in Portland alleging that the trio of home-grown racists was only partly to blame for Seraw’s death. Just as guilty, he said, was a Southern California white supremacist named Tom Metzger, a pudgy TV repairman who hadn’t set foot in Oregon in years.

Metzger’s physical presence was irrelevant, argued Morris Dees and his colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Through his hateful newspaper, telephone “hotlines” and the exhortations of an associate in Portland, the former Klansman was just as liable as Mieske. As far as Dees was concerned, Metzger’s fingerprints were all over that bat.

In October 1990, a Portland jury agreed. In front of a courtroom packed with the national press corps, they socked Metzger and his son, Tom, with a multimillion-dollar judgment, to be paid to the family of Mulugeta Seraw.

As Morris Dees put it:

Mr. Dees and his colleagues argued that the Metzgers, through the Portland skinheads, “had agreed upon a common objective that clearly contemplated injury to others. . . . Nothing in the First Amendment prevented imposing liability if such a conspiracy could be established. . . . Our argument to the jury . . . would be simple: under our Constitution, you have the right to hate but not to hurt.

Dees successfully argued that Metzger and his organization influence Seraw’s murder by encouraging Portland’s East Side White Pride skinhead to commit violence. The result was a $12.5 million dollar judgement against Metzger’s group, White Aryan Resistance, that bankrupted the organization.

As the old saying goes, your right to freedom of expression stops at the tip of my nose. So, my advice to those black ministers would be to take a lesson from the Klan and White Aryan Resistance. You are free to preach hate to your heart’s content. But if, in preaching against “sin,” you encourage others to commit violence against “sinners” like me, and they end up doing, there’s enough of a precedent to suggest you may be liable.

That’s without a hate crimes law. There’s quite a distance between your pulpit and the tip of my nose, but there are consequences if in your “preaching” you encourage others beyond that point.You’re free preach hatred. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be prize.

As I research and write cases for the LGBT Hate Crimes Project, I think I begin to see a connection between the hate crimes I’m immersed in, and the words of ministers like Willie Wilson, Alfred Owens, Eddie Long, and Wellington Boone. It may not pass muster in a court of law, but they are the direct result of what happens when you set aside a group of people to be treated as “less than.” That so many black ministers don’t get that, though it may not land them in the same spot as Metzger or the Klan, is just as criminal.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.

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