Op-Ed: Sending the message that hatred is intolerable

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Many anniversaries are celebrated with anticipation and joy, but there are some that we would just as soon forget.

Ten years ago, on June 7, 1998, James Byrd Jr. was brutally murdered simply because he was African-American. Byrd, a resident of Jasper, accepted a ride home from three men, one of whom he knew. Instead of taking him home, these men chained Byrd to the back of their pickup and dragged him more than three miles, killing him.

At the time, this barbaric incident shocked the world. Ten years later, it is shocking that, according to FBI Hate Crime statistics, hate crimes are occurring in even higher numbers all around the country. The 2006 data — the most recent available — show hate crimes at the highest level since 2001.

This past Tuesday, three men approached a Hispanic man in Charlotte, N.C., while he was checking his mailbox in broad daylight and punched him more than 40 times because of his ethnicity, investigators said.

On May 15, just hours after the California Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-gender marriage, police arrested three men in Sacramento for beating up the first gay man they could find.

In New Jersey, on May 5, a Sikh teenager had his turban set on fire by a classmate. Incredibly, the school initially dismissed the act as a childish “prank.”

Unfortunately, I could go on and on. How many more hate crimes must be perpetrated before our government takes action on this heinous and growing problem?

Congressional legislation is pending that would help stem the tide of hate-motivated violence. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act provides federal assistance to local law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute hate crimes. That is why the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association support this effort.

The hate crimes bill has received strong votes of bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. Unfortunately, Congress has not made an effort to send this bill to the White House because of President Bush’s threat of a veto.

Bush missed an opportunity to condemn hate-motivated violence when, as governor of Texas, he vetoed the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. I hope and pray the president changes course.

Though legislation alone cannot remove hate from individuals’ hearts and minds, hate crimes legislation can help to create a society that considers hate-motivated violence intolerable. The fundamental promise of the American dream is a society in which all people are safe as well as free.

This is far more than a law-and-order issue; it is also a moral and religious issue. Nearly three dozen diverse religious organizations, including the Interfaith Alliance, strongly support this hate crimes bill. The sacred scriptures of many different religious traditions speak with dramatic unanimity on the subject of intolerance.

Every person in the United States should enjoy the strongest possible guarantee of freedom from attacks motivated by bigotry. If we aspire to be true to the prophetic core of our religions, we cannot condemn hate and then sit idly by while acts of hatred destroy our communities.

The British statesman Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (people) to do nothing.” Hate crimes legislation must be passed and signed into law so that innocent people such as James Byrd Jr. did not have to die in vain.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy is President of the Interfaith Alliance in Washington, D.C. He is also pastor of Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La., and a former pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.