Property Before People

~ Kathy McMullen, Associate Director

In 1994, Alabama adopted a hate crimes statute that imposes “additional penalties where it is shown that a perpetrator committing the underlying offense was motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or physical or mental disability.” The purpose of the additional penalties is to deter crimes that are intended not only to injure the victims but also to terrorize communities.

Rep. Alvin Holmes (D-Montgomery) has been working for years to add sexual orientation to the hate crimes statute, and Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) has lobbied for the addition of gender identity as well. This year she has introduced HB28, which would amend the statute to “provide for those additional penalties for crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

The House Judiciary Committee has failed to move on HB28.

However, this week the Senate’s Judiciary Committee approved SB27, which would amend the state’s hate crimes statute to “provide additional penalties against any person who commits arson, burglary, or criminal mischief in any degree against religious property, such as churches and cemeteries.” The bill has one sponsor, Majority Whip Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), and no co-sponsors. It has received a second reading in the Senate, which means it will come up shortly for a vote.

While it is abhorrent to me that anyone would desecrate a sacred space, I find it really disturbing that our legislature would put property above people when making changes to the hate crimes statue.

Advocates gathered just last Sunday in Montgomery for the 14th Annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence, an event that started after the vicious beating and murder of Billy Jack Gaither in 1999. There have been far too many others lost to us over the years – and too many who are forever marked by beatings and abuse intended to terrorize and punish them because of who they are and who they love.

If we are to add protections to our current hate crimes statute, let us remember that our LGBT sisters and brothers are persons of sacred worth to God. As much as we value our sacred spaces, we must value our fellow human beings more.

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If you would like to share your feedback on SB27 and/or HB28, please contact your legislators as soon as possible. You can find their names and contact information by entering your nine-digit ZIP code here.

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There are differences of opinion regarding the usefulness of hate crimes laws. Some people say a crime is a crime and the punishment should be the same regardless of the reason the perpetrator targeted the victim. On the other hand, the criminal justice system has always considered motivation when determining punishment for a crime — mitigating factors, aggravating factors. I think most people consider terrorism-related murders to be more heinous than a robbery gone bad because the intent is to terrorize not just the murder victims but an entire community.

Unfortunately, when the community is an already marginalized group of people, it’s far too easy to blame the victim (“black people should know to stay out of that part of town”, “she looks Mexican, so she must be illegal”, “he’s gay, and I think he made a pass at me”, etc.) and let the perpetrator off with a lighter sentence than s/he would have received if the victim had been more privileged.