Rev. Gaddy Submits Testimony on Hate Crimes for Hearing on the State of Civil Rights in the United States

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WASHINGTON – Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of Interfaith Alliance, submitted the following testimony for the Statement of Record for hearing on the “State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States” for the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

Written Testimony of Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, President of Interfaith Alliance
Submitted to
The Senate Judiciary Committee,
Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights

For the Hearing Record on “The State of Civil and Human Rights in the United States”
December 9, 2014

On behalf of the Interfaith Alliance, a national organization committed to defending religious freedom whose membership comes from over 75 different religious traditions, I would like to thank Chairman Durbin and the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, for the opportunity to submit this statement for the record. On a personal note, as I prepare to step aside from the helm of Interfaith Alliance at the end of this month, I welcome this final chance to share my thoughts with this Subcommittee.

As I reflect on my 16 years as president of Interfaith Alliance, there is no issue I look back on with more pride in our accomplishments than our work to prevent hate crimes. I applaud the fierce dedication to this issue displayed by so many members of this committee, and I urge you to continue your many achievements to combat hate-motivated violence in the 114th Congress.

I began my tenure at Interfaith Alliance just months before Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming. Witnessing that tragedy, and watching the rhetoric from the Religious Right that followed, it became clear to us at Interfaith Alliance that violence had been done to more than just Matthew alone. A crime had been committed against every lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person in America; a crime had been committed against anyone who was perceived as different – racial minorities, religious minorities, women, people with disabilities and many others. Something had occurred that threatened our Constitution’s promise of equality and freedom.

It was also clear that more people than just those who perpetrated the violence were implicated in this brutal attack. There is a culture of hate that is kept alive in American society by specific groups, certain voices in the media and sadly, even community leaders. While we are not all members or targets of these movements, we are all a part of a nation filled with the fear and insecurity they create.

This realization led a truly inspiring collection of organizations to come together and take up the fight to pass powerful hate crimes prevention legislation. Interfaith Alliance worked with religious groups from every different faith, with LGBT groups and racial justice groups, and people representing every identity imaginable joined forces to help pass legislation that would strengthen training and education around hate crimes, help the government collect statistics on hate crimes and hate groups, and increase penalties for violence that targeted an entire community. We were proud to be part of the early stages of advocating for legislation that ultimately became the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, championed by so many of you and ultimately passed by this committee and Congress in 2009.

For my organization and for me personally, this legislation stood not only as a way to honor and make meaningful the deaths of people like Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., but as a testament to the enduring strength of religious freedom in America. When this legislation was initially proposed, the Religious Right tried to scare Americans into thinking that the federal government would lock up preachers who taught their beliefs about human sexuality, violate the freedom of churches, and target conservative anti-gay religious communities.

Of course, hardly any of this happened. In implementing hate crimes legislation, our law enforcement agencies have proven remarkably adept at distinguishing between legally protected speech and religious practice and acts of hate and violence. Moreover, the implementation of this law has done significant work to protect the rights of religious communities across the country, for we cannot have freedom to worship without the freedom from fear of violence and hate. This fact has demonstrated what many of us have always known, that civil rights and religious freedom are never mutually exclusive and that we are all strengthened by increased protections against hate-motivated violence.

There is, however, considerable work left to be done to implement and strengthen the Hate Crimes Prevention Act – and this Subcommittee cannot afford to consider this legislation simply as a past accomplishment. We must all continue our work to ensure that this law protects as many people as possible, that its required reporting remains strong and that it continues to effectively connect law enforcement with communities in need.

Every civil rights initiative I have had the honor to work on has gone through the same evolution: as our knowledge of the issues confronting different segments of our society grows, we understand that our laws, guidance and training need to be updated. Law enforcement and advocacy communities saw this need to evolve in recent years when it became apparent that many people who were mistakenly identified as Muslim were the victims of hate violence in our nation’s recent wave of anti-Muslim bigotry. The initial parameters of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act’s data collection had no way of capturing the full picture of this violence, but advocates, law enforcement, and political leaders worked together to update our policies to include collecting data about violence against Arab-Americans, South Asians and Sikhs. The members of this Subcommittee must remain vigilant in understanding the changing needs of communities who live in fear of hate-motivated violence and work to ensure that everyone is protected by this important legislation.

However, none of the rules for data collection are significant if police departments around the country continue to dramatically underreport hate crimes in their jurisdictions or fail to report them at all. Too many cities and jurisdictions claim that no hate crimes occur on their watch, or that the crimes that do occur are not worth reporting to the federal government – the stories we hear from people across the country show that this simply is not true. This Subcommittee and the Department of Justice must explore creative ways to work with police departments and encourage them to accurately report the hate crimes that occur in their communities. This law cannot be fully effective until every community fully participates in its enforcement.

Improving this data collection is just one of the ways that this Subcommittee and the federal government must engage with local police departments to ensure that officers and departments are properly equipped to enforce this law. The training and education that the DOJ has already undertaken have been laudable, but they must be continued – and continuously updated.

The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and the demonstrations that have followed in their wake, have illustrated the deep divide between law enforcement and racial and religious minorities across the country. Investment in the prevention and prosecution of hate crimes can be a powerful way for law enforcement to build bridges with the communities they serve. Doing this well could show that law enforcement will go out of its way to protect the safety of at-risk communities and that the government does indeed recognize that all lives matter. As this Subcommittee considers other mechanisms necessary to rectifying the divide between police and certain communities, I urge you to make strong hate crime protections a core part of this work.

I had the privilege to speak with Matthew Shepard’s parents when the Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed and to speak with them again this year on the fifth anniversary of its passage. I know that it means so much to them that their son’s legacy has led to increased rights and protections for so many people across America. As we transition to the next Congress, it is incumbent on this Subcommittee to ensure that Matthew’s legacy and the legacies of so many others continue to be honored through the urgent work to prevent hate-motivated violence.