Gay Rights Advocates Fight for Hate Crime Laws

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Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich will reportedly sign a bill that would add crimes against gays to the state's list of hate crimes. Maryland would be the 31st state to adopt such legislation. Even so, the battle highlights an ongoing national debate.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

(Soundbite of conference)

LUDDEN: This month, I visited a tiny conference room of a Holiday Inn in Maryland. There was a cash bar in back. A couple dozen people settled in for their monthly meeting.

Unidentified Man #1: Did everybody get a chance to meet Brian and his 50:50 raffle? So he's got that for all you deep-pocketed Republicans. We all know that you're wealthy, so kick in a little bit.

LUDDEN: This is the Republican Club of Frederick County. This night's group was mostly older people, retirees and a few middle-age folk who gathered to keep up on current events. Once the club business had been taken care of, Paul Smith introduced the evening's first speaker.

Mr. PAUL SMITH: We've invited Mr. Kerns because there are a number of issues going on in the state of Maryland with regard to marriage.

LUDDEN: Tres Kerns is a full-time Christian activist, a barnstorming conservative in a blue state. He walked up, leaned on the podium and gestured toward the small crowd.

Mr. TRES KERNS (Christian Activist): I was just thinking about my good friend Colonel Tanzy(ph) over here who used to say every time he goes down to Annapolis or down to the state school board, `We're the other part of Maryland up here.' I love coming up here to Frederick County.

LUDDEN: Kerns is soft-spoken with a nervous laugh. He heads VoteMarriage.org and Take Back Maryland, grassroots groups that say they promote family values. Right now Kerns urgently wants a referendum to block several new Maryland bills he says promote a gay agenda.

Mr. KERNS: Are you all in favor of same-sex marriage here in Maryland?

Unidentified Man #2: No.

Mr. KERNS: Everybody is saying no? OK.

LUDDEN: In fact, same-sex marriage isn't quite the issue at stake but it might as well be as Kerns sees it.

Mr. KERNS: Let me ask you another question. Every law that they put on the books that recognizes homosexuality or sexual orientation, does that take us closer to same-sex marriage or further away?

Unidentified Man #3: Closer.

Mr. KERNS: It takes us closer, doesn't it?

LUDDEN: Maryland's Democratic controlled Legislature has passed four bills that expand various gay rights. Just yesterday the state's Republican governor vetoed two of them, including one that would have allowed Marylanders to make medical decisions for a same-sex partner, but aides say next week, Ehrlich will sign the other two, including one controversial change that's been passing in states across the country in recent years. This bill expands Maryland's hate crimes statutes to include sexual orientation. It means added penalties if a crime is motivated by hatred toward gays, lesbians or transsexuals. Maryland would be the 31st state to adopt such legislation. Valerie Jenness is a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine and an expert on the politics of hate crimes laws.

Professor VALERIE JENNESS (UC Irvine): Increasingly over time, sexual orientation provisions were being accepted and fairly rapidly across states. I think one of the things that has shifted that pattern is this kind of incredible injection of discourse about gay and lesbian America through the same-sex-marriage issue, that it's almost put it back on the national radar, and when I say `it,' I mean, what's back on the national radar is, `What do we as a country or as local communities or states think about gays and lesbians?' I mean, that's really the heart of the matter here.

LUDDEN: For some conservative Christians, expanding hate crimes laws to protect gays and lesbians amounts to an attack on their faith. They point to biblical passages that condemn homosexuality and they ask, `If Christians stand up and cite these passages and denounce homosexuality as immoral, does that mean they'll now be accused of a hate crime?' Stephen Crampton wages legal battles on behalf of religious conservatives.

Mr. STEPHEN CRAMPTON (Center for Law and Policy): Ultimately, you've got favoritism by the government for certain groups that are warranted higher protection than others for virtually identical conduct and ultimately, of course, the suggestion here is that you've got a thought-crime state.

LUDDEN: Crampton is with the American Family Association's Center for Law and Policy based in Mississippi.

Mr. CRAMPTON: In the end, the very target I believe of hate crimes laws is traditional morality and really Christian speech in particular, Christian thought, if you will. The rise of hate crimes laws means the demise and the criminalizing of Christianity and I know that's strong but I think that's the ultimate direction that we're heading here. We're on a collision course and one of the two has got to give.

(Soundbite of traffic)

LUDDEN: In Silver Spring, Maryland, in a neighborhood full of ethnic hair salons and not a Starbucks in sight, Dan Furmansky heads Equality Maryland. The gay rights group brought people to testify before Maryland's Legislature on why hate crimes laws should specifically protect homosexuals.

Mr. DAN FURMANSKY (Equality Maryland): A young woman was raped and held down while `dyke' was etched into her stomach with a needle, situations like that. In Maryland, there was a young transgender individual, Owen Smith, who testified about basically being accosted on the street because of her gender expression, and being sexually assaulted and taunted and beaten up and this obviously is a trauma that has stuck with her for a very long time and had an impact on the larger community. These crimes send a message that people have to basically watch who they are, lest they be targeted. You can't be too out there. You can't hold your partner's hand even in your own neighborhood, because if you do, we're going to target you and we're going to get you.

LUDDEN: Furmansky dismisses the notion that a hate crimes law protecting gays and lesbians will trample on anyone's free speech.

Mr. FURMANSKY: No one has ever been successfully prosecuted under a hate crimes statute just for speaking up peaceably against homosexuality. These folks are anti-gay. The entire purpose of the legislation is to keep people safe.

LUDDEN: Still, Christian activists say they have reason to worry the new hate crimes laws will stifle them.

Unidentified Man: "The Veritas Hours" is brought to you by Tres Kerns.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Singer: It's the song of the redeemed rising from the African plain.

LUDDEN: Maryland activist Tres Kerns also has a weekly radio show. Recently he talked about what happened to a group of fellow conservative Christians in Philadelphia last fall.

Mr. KERNS: They were there handing out Bible tracts and have Bible verses and wanted to minister to the homosexuals that were at this conference. Instead what happened to them, the cops harassed them and eventually arrested them and had a...

LUDDEN: Kerns' guest, Mike Marcavage(ph), recounts how he and a group of activists staged a protest at a gay pride festival. They opened their Bibles and started quoting passages through a bullhorn. Marcavage's group got into a standoff with some of the gay rights activists. Then the police moved in.

(Soundbite from radio show)

Mr. MIKE MARCAVAGE: And then they asked us to leave the event and we refused. We wanted to go ahead and continue to do what God has called us to do that day and that is to proclaim the truth about homosexuality.

Mr. KERNS: The reason why they said they arrested you, this was basically that the homosexuals felt that you were engaged in hate speech, isn't that correct?

Mr. MARCAVAGE: Yeah. What's interesting about this is we were charged with ethnic intimidation and in 2002...

LUDDEN: That ethnic intimidation charge was part of Pennsylvania's recently expanded hate crimes law. Marcavage and three others faced up to 47 years in prison if convicted. In court, a prosecutor referred to the Bible verses they read at the gay festival and called them fighting words.

Stories of the case zinged around conservative Web sites who likened it to persecution of Christians. Eventually a judge dismissed the case and even civil liberties groups conceded authorities had overreached, but the Philadelphia case has had a larger impact. In Maryland, lawmakers cited it when they added a special clause to their own hate crimes bill. It specifically allows clergy to denounce homosexuality as long as it's part of peaceable activities.

Tension between gay groups and the religious right is nothing new. For decades, conservative Christians have spoken out against homosexuality, but in recent years, some see a troubling change.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): I think this is a very big phenomenon.

LUDDEN: Mark Potok is with the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups. He noticed the shift after an important Supreme Court decision.

Mr. POTOK: Let me describe it this way. After the 2003 Lawrence decision which struck down state sodomy statutes around the country, I looked around at what the reaction was in the world I normally cover, radical right-wing groups like the Klan, neo-Nazis and so on. What was really noticeable, however, was that the most extreme statements, the most kind of violent statements, in fact, came out of Christian right groups like the Concerned Women for America, like the Traditional Values Coalition, like the Family Research Council. These groups talked about how the Supreme Court had legalized "perversion," quote, unquote. So, you know, it really was remarkable that, in fact, very large mainstream Christian groups really came out with the kind of most vicious statements about this and I would say that that has continued.

LUDDEN: In fact, Potok says he now plans to expand his work and monitor a number of Christian organizations; not that he'll label them hate groups anytime soon. He says he supports freedom of speech and religion, but Potok senses a creeping extremism.

Mr. POTOK: Although many of these groups say, `You know, we love the sinner but hate the sin,' in reality when you talk about people as vermin, as beasts, as brutes, as perverts and so on, in fact, that is personalizing this attitude, this sexual orientation that you disagree with and making the person who lives in that world into something evil.

(Soundbite of festival)

LUDDEN: At the Holy Cow Children's Festival(ph) in Arnold, Maryland, Christian activists troll for petitioners. They've got until late June to collect enough signatures to hold a public referendum that could overturn the state's new hate crimes legislation. One young mother pushing a double stroller signs on. Trisha Goodman(ph) can't quite explain what the petition is for but one point is clear to her.

Ms. TRISHA GOODMAN: Well, the only think I understand is from a biblical standpoint is that, you know, marriage should be between a man and a woman. So if I can do my part by signing for the legislation to not have it, then that's the only thing I can do.

LUDDEN: At that Republican meeting in Frederick County, Tres Kerns wraps up his message by laying out another broader strategy. He points out that if he can get referendums on Maryland's new gay rights bills, they'll be put to a public vote in the next elections.

Mr. KERNS: What do you think is going to happen if we get them on the ballot in 2006? Did anybody pay attention to the elections in November 2004 and see what happens? This is one of the most winnable political issues in the country and God's given this to us right in front of us.

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