As a person of faith, as an ethnic and religious minority, as a human being, I know what it means to be harassed, ignored and treated as less than a valued member of society by some people. I am grateful that these experiences have not been frequent.
The unfortunate reality is that at some point in our life’s journey we will meet someone who refuses to recognize our inherent, God-given human dignity. Those moments will be hurtful and diminishing, but for many will not necessarily be threatening to life, limb or property. Others, however, will not be so fortunate. The question for our government leaders during the 2018 legislative session is what will they do to combat those circumstances when life, liberty and property are seriously threatened based on nothing more than a person’s perceived religion, nationality, race, sexual orientation, gender, disability or age?
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Jordan, will run a victim selection bill providing for some enhanced penalties when a person commits a crime against a person or group of persons based primarily on the above list of characteristics. The bill protects the rights of people to speak out against others, to harbor unkind thoughts and feelings about specific ethnicities, genders, etc. However, if those thoughts and feelings lead to criminal acts, the perpetrator may face additional jail time or a larger fine in criminal sentencing if he or she targeted the victim because of a specific ethnicity, gender, etc. The enhancement recognizes that crimes such as these impact not only the immediate victim, but also the other intended victims — all those in the community who share the same characteristics.
In other words, the bill recognizes that burning a cross on the lawn of a black family is not just vandalism; it sends a threatening message to all black people in the community. The burning cross is an act steeped in the history of lynching in America, and the threat of violence from such an act is very clear and very real.
The bill is also in response to the rapid rise of criminal acts such as defacing mosques, desecrating Jewish cemeteries or targeting religious services with threatening behavior across our nation. The perpetrators of these targeted acts seek not just to cause property damage, but also to frighten entire congregations and disrupt the free exercise of the targeted religion.
Every person has God-given dignity. While that dignity is never lost, when a criminal seeks to deny it to any person, or group of people, we must take action to protect the vulnerable target. Therefore, if a person commits a crime against a church, and a prosecutor can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the criminal sought to target not just the building, but all who worship within, the punishment should fit the full extent of the crime.
We all deny the dignity of others to varying degrees. Despite our shared humanity, we forget at times that all are created equal. We may adopt attitudes of rejection and exclusion and consent to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial, ethnic, religious or other differences. These acts are morally wrong, but are usually not criminal.
When discriminatory attitudes do lead to criminal acts, we need to repair the wounds, including the wounds intentionally inflicted on the basis of a deep-seated prejudice. Protecting human dignity requires recognizing and addressing attitudes that are so biased, so prejudiced that a person wrongly believes he or she is justified in causing grave harm to another. Enhancing the penalty a perpetrator receives for committing a crime against not just one person, but an entire class of people is a first step toward a justice system that seeks to restore peace to the entire targeted community.
The Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.