Congress is finally close to passing a bill that makes lynching a hate crime — but an evangelical group is trying to remove any reference to LGBTQ communities from the legislation.
When the Senate unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act in December, it marked an important step in a roughly century-long effort to outlaw the practice at the federal level. But before the House begins considering its version of the legislation, the Liberty Counsel, an evangelical litigation group, is calling for the bill to be stripped of language that refers to gender identity or sexual orientation.
In an interview this week with Christian news outlet OneNewsNow, Liberty Counsel chair Mat Staver argued that references to sexual orientation and gender identity in the bill would make it easier for the government to pass additional protections for LGBTQ people.
“The old saying is once that camel gets the nose in the tent, you can’t stop them from coming the rest of the way in,” Staver said. “And this would be the first time that you would have in federal law mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation as part of this anti-lynching bill.”
Staver said that he generally supported the anti-lynching legislation, but argued that the language was a way to “slip in” LGBTQ rights as part of a bill legislators would struggle to openly oppose.
“So far they’ve been unsuccessful over the many years in the past,” Staver said, referring to previous congressional efforts to pass anti-discrimination laws covering LGBTQ people. “But this is a way to slip it in under a so-called anti-lynching bill, and to then to sort of circle the wagon and then go for the [jugular] at some time in the future.”
Staver’s interview has been heavily criticized by civil rights groups, who note that the Liberty Counsel has an extensive history of opposing pro-LGBTQ legislation. The Southern Poverty Law Center has long considered the Liberty Counsel — which was founded by Staver in the 1980s — a “hate group,” noting that it has spent years “advocating for anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty.” Last year, the group called for Congress to pull language referring to sexual orientation and gender identity from the text of the USMCA trade deal.
The organization “has a long history of attacking LGBTQ people and their families by working to enshrine discrimination into law and undermine advances in fairness and equality,” Stephen Peters, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights group, told Newsweek on Thursday. “Their attempt to remove LGBTQ people from an anti-lynching bill demonstrates their animosity [toward them].”
The anti-lynching legislation is intended to protect African Americans, but would also cover other groups
Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Tim Scott (R-SC) — the Senate’s three black members — introduced the Senate’s anti-lynching bill in June. Their bill was a companion to one filed in the House earlier that month by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). Rush reintroduced the House’s version of the bill at the beginning of this year.
By classifying lynching and attempted lynching as a federal hate crime, the bill enables judges to impose additional sentencing on top of any other charges when determining the punishment for those convicted of such crimes. The legislation specifically defines lynching as acts that “willfully cause bodily injury to any other person because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin,” or acts that cause injury due to a person’s actual or perceived “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”
In doing so, the bill largely functions as an apology for Congress’s failure to pass anti-lynching legislation when the practice was at its peak in the late-1800s through the mid-1960s. Decades of efforts to pass this legislation failed due to opposition claiming that any anti-lynching measure would allow federal law to infringe on state’s rights.
Ultimately, it took the Senate more than 200 attempts and roughly 100 years to pass the legislation, which they finally did in December. The House did not vote on its version of the bill last year, but a spokesperson for Rush’s office told Vox that they expect the bill to receive a vote in 2019.
The legislation’s focus on lynchings is an acknowledgment of decades of racial violence directed at African Americans. The Senate’s bill notes that some 4,742 people, the majority of them black, were killed in lynchings between 1882 and 1968.
But there have been deaths far more recently that would fall into the Senate’s definition of a lynching, and some of these have been aimed at LGBTQ individuals, including the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. After hanging out at a local bar, Shepard was lured to a car by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, who abducted, robbed, and brutally beat Shepard before tying him to a fence post in a field. After being left outside in below-freezing weather, Shepard was found by a biker 18 hours later.
A 2017 piece in the Guardian on Shepard’s life and death noted that he “suffered 18 blows to the head and face, including four skull fractures and a damaged brain stem.” Shepard died five days after the attack.
Henderson and McKinney were both convicted for murder and received two consecutive life sentences. The 1998 murders of Shepard and James Byrd Jr. — a black man lynched in Jasper, Texas, by three white men — eventually led to the passage of federal hate crimes legislation in 2009.
The Liberty Counsel claims LGBTQ protections in the bill undermine efforts to acknowledge lynching’s effect on black communities. They’re wrong.
On Thursday, the evangelical group issued a statement criticizing outlets reporting on its proposal, claiming that the pieces were was “false, reckless, and offensive,” and that the group had received death threats following the NBC News report. However, the statement did not detail any specific things taken out of context or any efforts to amend Staver’s initial remarks with OneNewsNow.
Instead, the group argued that victims of lynching — a crime historically aimed at African Americans and explicitly defined as targeting a marginalized group — should not be limited to “protected categories.”
“The bill in question created a list of protected categories, thus limiting the application of the law,” Staver said in the statement.
Liberty Counsel Public Policy Director Jonathan Alexandre made an additional statement about the legislation:
“The systematic torture and abuse of African-Americans throughout history is this country’s greatest disgrace. Some politicians and media have tried to use this horrible history to push unrelated political agendas by hijacking a serious issue. Lynching is wrong for all people despite the reason for targeting a victim.”
Responding to a request for comment, a Liberty Counsel spokesperson sent Vox an additional statement from Staver. “Lynching is wrong no matter whether someone is white or black, gay or straight, disabled or able-bodied,” Staver says. “An anti-lynching bill should apply to everyone without any categories.”
But the problem here is that these comments dismiss the fact that by its very definition, lynching has been used as a tool against marginalized groups, not against society at large. A lynching bill that did not explicitly name protected groups would ultimately fail to acknowledge this.
It is true that while the anti-lynching bill protects several marginalized identities, including national origin, religion, and gender, the history of lynching in America means that the bill is most focused on race. The bill’s text notes that lynching was “the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction,” and it makes several references to the harm decades of racial terrorism had on black communities.
But beyond serving as an apology for the decades of violence inflicted on African Americans, the bill also creates additional sentencing guidelines that would extend the sentence of someone convicted under the law. This suggests lawmakers wanted the law to do more than atone for its inaction on past crimes, they also want to extend protections to victims of future ones. With that in mind, the effort to cover as many minority groups as possible makes sense.
In a follow-up report, NBC News noted that the Liberty Counsel also released a video confirming that it has “addressed to members of Congress questions regarding the created list of protected categories.”
On Thursday, Sen. Harris, one of the three members who introduced the Senate’s anti-lynching legislation, made her thoughts on the Liberty Counsel’s efforts to amend the bill plainly clear. “This is horrible and completely unjust,” she tweeted.
In a statement emailed to Vox, Rush—the sponsor of the House’s anti-lynching bill—said that the Liberty Counsel’s position “is completely wrong.”
“I am frustrated that this way of thinking does nothing but distract from the horrific nature of lynching,” Rush said. “This organization is deliberately muddling the intent of this important legislation to advance their own agenda.”