Several Christian conservative leaders are doing some serious fretting about a pending hate crimes bill. Congressional Democrats have proposed adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of federally prosecuted hate crimes. The bill carries the name of Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old Wyoming college student who was murdered 10 years ago because he was gay.
Christian leaders such as Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, are concerned that the passage of the bill will have a chilling effect on Christian preaching. Land in particular is concerned that preaching against homosexuality will become linked to acts of violence against gays and lesbians and cause insurance liability costs to go through the roof.
And goodness knows how much Jesus worried about the cost of liability insurance.
Of course the real concern among these Christians is a perceived threat to free speech. Critics of the bill argue that preachers could face arrest for speaking against homosexuality. They fear that condemnatory preaching will be portrayed as hateful speech.
I have been a student of the Bible for a long time and in particular the teachings of Jesus. To assert that Jesus was meek and mild and never said anything that ruffled the feathers of his opponents would be a gross distortion. And to say that Jesus never condemned anybody would also constitute a serious misreading.
Jesus made it plain that anyone who offended folks he called “little ones,” or “least of these,” would be better off with a millstone around their neck and dropped off in the deep part of the ocean.
But Jesus also made it clear that the business of determining who deserved those millstone collars was up to God. When a woman was brought to him having allegedly been engaged in adultery, he refused the accusing crowd their right to judge her.
Maybe Christian preachers would have less to fear from a hate crimes bill if their speech was less hate-filled.
But even if the bill passes, and even if preachers continue to preach in ways that inspire hate, there is no reason to fear that their right to speak freely will be restricted. The reason I know this is that religious language is already aggressively protected, no matter how outrageous it becomes.
For instance, did you hear about the preacher in Michigan who was sent to jail because he called down biblical curses on the judge who convicted him for voter fraud?
Rev. Edward Pinkney ran for congress in 2007. As part of his campaign, he paid voters $5 each to vote for him. That’s against the law. And when the judge reminded him of that inconvenient fact, the reverend said that God would smite the judge. That’s what got him 10 years.
Of course, the judge was in error to do that. The constitution guarantees our right to criticize government officials, even with biblical curses. And an appeals court reminded the judge of that when they overturned Pinkney’s conviction.
Or did you hear that Wiley Drake, the California pastor who prayed for President Obama to die, has now filed suit to have the president removed from office because he is not a natural-born citizen. Apparently Drake grew impatient with the Lord’s handling of the matter and decided to act on his own.
All of which proves that the First Amendment of the Constitution ensures that religious speech is protected, no matter how ridiculous or hateful it is.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.