If hard cases make bad law, then one especially wrongheaded piece of legislation in Illinois should be known as the Benjamin Smith Prevention Act. Smith was a young white supremacist who went on a rampage north of Chicago in July 1999, killing two people (including the beloved college basketball coach Ricky Birdsong) and wounding nine before he committed suicide.

Smith was a member of the World Church of the Creator, which is led by "the Rev. Matthew Hale, Pontifex Maximus," and publishes such dubious texts as The White Man's Bible, Nature's Eternal Religion, and Salubrious Living. Hale preaches an ideology of paranoia, rage, and self-pity, and Smith acted on it with fatal results. His crime has led Rep. Jeff Schoenberg to propose House Bill 136 in the Illinois General Assembly.

Opposing hate crimes has joined the list of cost-free political commitments, and Schoenberg's bill breezed through the Illinois House on a 96-10 vote in late March. Only a bill affirming belief in motherhood and apple pie could have garnered a more glibly righteous vote. If the bill becomes state law or inspires similar legislation across the nation, Smith's cowardly actions will have inflicted long-term harm on the law and, quite possibly, on religious freedom.

Existing law in Illinois says that a hate crime can be motivated by animus against a person's "perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin." Schoenberg's proposed law would punish anyone who "agrees with another to utilize violence, threats, or intimidation in order to interfere with another person's free exercise of any right or privilege" guaranteed by state or federal constitutions or other laws.

In other words, the bill creates the possibility of treating a minister as a "coconspirator" if a parishioner commits a hate crime. Compounding the threat further, the bill defines a hate crime as broadly as Planned Parenthood defines the importance of access to abortion for a woman's emotional well-being.

What Qualifies as Intimidation?

The bill's use of the word intimidation makes the Benjamin Smith Prevention Act a blank check for people who cry "hate crime" at the mildest suggestion that they could be wrong on issues of profound moral consequence.

Is a pastor who preaches against sexual involvement apart from marriage guilty of intimidation? Apparently so, if one believes the activists who claim that fear and hatred are the only explanations for opposing nonmarital unions.

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How about a pastor who follows Jesus' advice in Matthew 18 when confronting a parishioner engaged in open and unrepentant sin such as usury or gossip? Courts already have heard frivolous lawsuits from cohabiting couples who were confronted by their church leaders, so why should other sins be exempt from state protection?

One provision in Schoenberg's bill would punish any hate crime committed in "a church, synagogue, or. … place used for religious worship." This provision could well guard against the desecration of churches, synagogues, and mosques. But, again, such overly broad wording could also smooth a path for ridiculous claims against religious leaders who preach the traditional doctrines and ethics of their faith—"hate speech" to some modernist ears—within the walls of their own sanctuaries.

Andrew Sullivan, the most refreshingly contrarian gay pundit in America, has criticized how advocates of hate-crime laws have exploited the death of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man beaten to death by two beer-swilling thugs in 1998.

"If the Shepard case proved the need for hate-crime laws, this emphasis might make sense," Sullivan wrote in The New Republic. "But the case is a somewhat spectacular example of their superfluity. Shepard's murderers were swiftly caught and brought to justice without any such laws. … Even advocates of hate crime legislation concede this point. They know that such laws would primarily affect much less grave misdemeanors."

Most thinking people readily acknowledge that hate drives people to evil and destructive actions, sometimes with fatal consequences. Jesus gave us vivid pastoral warnings about the spiritual harm in calling someone a fool (Matt. 5:22), much less in allowing hate to fester in our hearts. Only a stubbornly heretical religion such as the World Church of the Creator finds anything worthwhile in race-baiting or violence.

But while establishing motive is an important step for police and prosecutors who handle murder cases, the law punishes actions, not motives or pernicious thoughts. Is a crime by one person against another ever inspired by altruism? Do we hear of muggings, thefts, or acts of vandalism in which love is the controlling emotion? One need not be a professional historian to recognize that punishing thought crimes is the work of totalitarian regimes and not of democratic republics.

No informed Christian should see the World Church of the Creator as teaching anything but reprehensible heterodoxy, or Pontifex Maximus Matthew Hale as anything but a wolf in sheep's clothing. Law enforcement monitors such hate groups as potential sources of mayhem, and if World Church members' toxic beliefs result again in violence, they should be arrested swiftly and imprisoned for their criminal actions.

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Bad theology should not create bad law. Just as the best antidote to bad speech is better speech, the best solution to false doctrine is the persistent teaching of truth—not a law as poorly conceived as HB136.

Related Elsewhere

Keep up with HB136 through the Illinois General Assembly's site.

News articles about HB136 include:

House bill goes after hate crimeChicago Tribune (Mar. 21, 2001)

Illinois State House passes hate-crimes measureChicago Sun-Times (Mar. 26, 2001)

Hate-crimes bill wins key supporter | Byrdsong widow backs bid to crack down on instigators — Chicago Tribune (Mar. 13, 2001)

Hate crimes bill hits a wall | Committee rejects it, fears legislation would make churches liable — Chicago Tribune (Mar. 2, 2001)

Articles by contrarian liberals Andrew Sullivan and Nat Hentoff against hate-crime legislation appear around the Web.

Christianity Today's past articles on hate and hate-crime legislation include:

Weblog: Can Calling Someone a Hate Criminal Be a Hate Crime? (Mar. 10, 2000)

Called to Hate? | How antihomosexual crusader Fred Phelps discredits the church (Oct. 25, 1999)

Church Leader Worships Whites | Matthew Hale, leader of the World Church of the Creator, has garnered mass media attention for his extremist message. (Oct. 25, 1999)

'Hate Crime' Legislation Resurfaces (May 24, 1999)

Christianity Today sister publication Books & CulturereviewedHate Crimes: Criminal Law and Identity Politics and examined how Christians might think theologically about the issues raised by hate-crime laws.

Three young men were recently charged under a Wisconsin hate crime law for attacking a Christian because of his faith.

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