Friday, October 16, 2009

Picking and Choosing

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) objects to adding sexual orientation to the list of hate crimes.

In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner “supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics.”

It should be noted that the current law does not include gender, though the expanded legislation would cover gender as well as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

“He does not support adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes,” Smith continued.

Boehner’s position, then, appears to be grounded in the notion that immutable characteristics should be protected under hate crimes laws. And while religion is an immutable characteristic, his office suggests, sexual orientation is not.

Apparently neither Mr. Boehner nor his office knows what “immutable” means: “not mutable; unchangeable; changeless.” So, according to him, you cannot change your religion, but you can change your sexual orientation, and therefore, because someone doesn’t choose to be Jewish or Catholic or Muslim but chooses to be gay, the Catholic is worthy of protection under existing hate crimes laws, but the gay man (regardless of religion, I suppose) is not.

It’s obvious Mr. Boehner didn’t think a lot about that point before he came up with it, or if he did, he’s either willfully ignorant or just thick. He’s got it exactly backwards. No one is born with a faith. You may be born into a family or a society with a faith, but you have to make the conscious choice to accept it, and there are plenty of examples of people who are born into one religion but choose to convert to something else or drop it altogether. Religion is one of the most mutable things there is. (By the way, if people couldn’t change their religion, Christianity would have never gotten off the ground: Paul would still be Saul on the road to Damascus.) That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected under the law, either.

It also means that Mr. Boehner has a lot to learn about sexual orientation. He may believe that people aren’t born gay or lesbian; that somehow we’re “recruited” into the ranks of the fashionable and that we really don’t have to be gay if we don’t want to be, but just because he believes that doesn’t make it so. And even if we were to entertain that medieval idea, why would being gay take away our rights to equal protection under the law? The Constitution does not allow us to pick and choose who should be protected and who should not based solely on who or what we are, other than law-abiding citizens.

You can debate the merits of hate crime legislation; that is, you can make a case that there should not be additional penalties for committing a crime against someone because you hate their religion or their sexual orientation; that’s legislating against someone’s thoughts or intentions. There are plenty of flaws in that argument; we already have different degrees of punishment for intent — murder in the first degree is treated differently than involuntary manslaughter. The result is the same — someone is dead — but did the killer plan out the murder or was it an accident? As for the Thought Police argument, that’s based on the rather paranoid idea that you can be arrested for thinking bad thoughts about someone. No, you can’t, nor should you be, but when you put those thoughts into action, then you have something you can be held responsible for. If your motivation is based on someone’s race or gender, that should be taken into account as well; the attack is not just on the person, it’s on what that person represents, which, as a lot of conservatives would say, makes it an act of terrorism.

What I suspect is going on here is just another dose of gay-bashing dressed up to make it sound respectable and legalistic by some staffer pulling “immutable” out of his hat. But it’s obvious that Mr. Boehner just doesn’t like gay people very much and he’s using the expansion of the hate crimes legislation to make his point. But I suppose if he came right out and said that, he’d be accused of a hate crime.