Commentary on Alabama Law and Society

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Location: Birmingham, Alabama

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hate Crime Hypocrisy

That is the charge leveled by this article.

The author asserts that if the recent Alabama Church burnings were actually Detroit mosque burnings, or San Francisco gay club bombings, then society would uniformly and loudly condemn the acts as hate crimes. That no such condemnation yet exists about the Alabama church burnings is explained only by hypocrisy. The author then makes the larger point that hate crime laws are "misguided" because they make "certain crimes more deserving of outrage and punishment not because of what the criminal did, but because of the group to which the victim belonged."

As to the larger point, hate crimes are not the only types where the penalty for an act depends on the status of the victim. In Alabama, for instance, if you and your neighbor have an argument and you shoot and kill him, you are guilty of murder. But, if instead of your neighbor, you shoot and kill the police officer who shows up to quiet the fight, you are guilty of capital murder. Penalties for the former do not include death, the latter do. That is only one example. We could also discuss child abuse laws. Suffice it to say that the status of the victim is always a relevant consideration when drafting criminal laws.

I am not arguing for or against hate crime laws, only pointing out that this argument against them is meritless.

As for the hypocrisy charge, it assumes that there is no valid reason for distinguishing between the three groups. But is that the case? Many factors determine whether or not a group should receive hate crime protection. Is the group a minority? Easily identified? With a history of persecution? I will let you apply these factors to each group mentioned in the article. My only assertion is that rational people could apply them to these three groups and conclude that yes, Baptist Churches in Alabama are different.

I am not saying these crimes were not motivated by hate for Baptists. Nor am I saying that if that is the case the defendants should not face the appropriate charges. I am saying that right now, there are explanations other than hypocrisy for assuming these were not hate crimes.