Federal judge dismisses challenge to hate-crimes law

Thursday, September 16, 2010

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A federal judge in Michigan has dismissed a lawsuit by several Christian advocates and pastors who filed an array of constitutional challenges to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law last October.

The plaintiffs — Gary Glenn, Levon Yuille, Rene Ouellette and James Combs — contend that the Hate Crimes Act infringes upon several of their First Amendment freedoms, including speech, religion and association. They argue that the act chills their fervent speech about a tenet of their Christian faith — opposition to homosexuality. In their legal papers, they wrote that they feared they would be subjected to “increased government scrutiny, questioning, investigation, surveillance, and intimidation on account of their strong, public opposition to homosexual activism, the homosexual lifestyle and the homosexual agenda.”

They also contend that the act penalizes their right freely to exercise their religious belief that homosexuality is wrong. With respect to their association claim, they argue that the law prohibits them from associating with others to condemn homosexual practices.

The plaintiffs filed an action in court, asking the court to declare the Hate Crimes Act unconstitutional. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder responded with a motion to dismiss filed in April 2010. Holder argued that the plaintiffs don’t have standing because they don’t face a credible threat of prosecution. He added that the Hate Crimes Act prohibits violent conduct, not speech.

U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington of the Eastern District of Michigan held a hearing in the matter in July 2010. On Sept. 7, he issued his ruling in Glenn v. Holder, siding with the attorney general and dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims. “The Attorney General’s arguments are persuasive,” the judge wrote, adding that the plaintiffs had not shown that they face a likely prosecution under the law.

Robert J. Muise, senior trial counsel for the Thomas More Law Center and attorney for the plaintiffs, said that there would be an appeal.

“When you intend to engage in a course of conduct that is at least arguably covered by the criminal statute, which it is in this case, and that conduct is protected by the First Amendment, the person challenging the criminal statute need not wait for a prosecution to have standing to make the challenge,” said Muise.

“This is well understood in the context of a First Amendment challenge to a criminal statute, as in this case, because First Amendment liberties are precious and vulnerable and require the greatest protection in our free society. Unfortunately, the judge’s decision disregarded this important aspect of First Amendment jurisprudence.”

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