Federal appeals court: Hate Crimes Act stands, does not prohibit anti-gay speech

CINCINNATI, Ohio — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a lawsuit brought by three Michigan pastors challenging the constitutionality of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled the Act — which imposes harsher punishments for individuals who commit violent acts on individuals due to their sexual orientation — was constitutional, and did not suppress anti-gay speech.

The suit was first filed in February 2010 by the conservative Thomas More Law Center, four months after President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law in October 2009.

Plaintiffs Gary Glenn, head of the American Family Association of Michigan, and pastors Levon Yuille, René B. Ouellette and James Combs had argued the law would lead to their criminal prosecution for expressing anti-gay religious beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.

In the filing, the plaintiffs cited bible passages and quoted from novelist George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” claiming the Shepard-Byrd Act treated certain individuals “more equal than others,” and said that the intent of the act was to “eradicate religious beliefs opposing the homosexual agenda.”

In their ruling today, the Court said that the plaintiffs had “not alleged any actual intent” to cause bodily injury to any gay individuals, and pointed out that the pastors explicitly denounced “crimes of violence perpetrated against innocent individuals.”

The Hate Crimes Act, the appeals court ruled, “does not prohibit Plaintiffs’ proposed course of speech” and said they “can’t quite pinpoint what it is they want to say that could subject them to prosecution under the Hate Crimes Act.”

The court acknowledged that should the plaintiffs, all pastors, quote the biblical passage Leviticus 20:13, which calls for men who have sex with one another to be put to death, “they have not alleged any intention to do more than merely quote it,” which is not unlawful under the provisions of the Shepard-Bryd Act.

“If the Hate Crimes Act prohibits only willfully causing bodily injury and Plaintiffs are not planning to willfully injure anybody, then what is their complaint? Plaintiffs answer that they fear wrongful prosecution and conviction under the Act. Not only is that fear misplaced, it’s inadequate to generate a case or controversy the federal courts can hear,” the appeals court ruled.

Glenn did not respond to a request from LGBTQ Nation for comment on today’s ruling.

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