Terry Magnum believed he was doing God's will when he stabbed gay Southwest Airline flight attendant Kenneth Cummings Jr. in the head with a six-inch knife. "Sexual perversion is the worst sin," he told reporters from the jail in Brazoria County, Texas, where he is charged with a hate crime in the June 4th slaying. Cummings' charred body was found days later.
The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act passed the Texas legislature in 2001, over the objections of conservative religious groups and Republicans. The bill allowed Texas crimes motivated by "sexual orientation" to be prosecuted at the highest level of severity. That can mean more years in sentencing or a lesser chance of parole. The family of James Byrd, the black man who was brutally murdered in Texas, and the family of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was brutally murdered in Wyoming, joined together to fight for the law.
Now, the religious right and conservative Republicans have been fighting against adding sexual orientation and gender to the federal Hate Crimes Enhancement Act (H.R.1592). A group of Memphis pastors, predominantly African-American, are targeting Representative Steve Cohen for supporting the bill.
The "Memphis City Churches" organization spent thousands of dollars on full-page newspaper ads opposing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Having successfully amended the Tennessee constitution to prohibit gays and lesbians from marrying, the group is now opposing the hate-crimes bill because, they argue, such legislation would infringe upon their religious beliefs and freedom of speech — freedom to preach against homosexuality. Their Web site proclaims, "Any sermons against homosexuality will be a crime. Telling a person that he or she can come out of the gay life will be a crime."
Evidently, these pastors have not actually read H.R. 1592, which clearly states, "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct." That includes preaching against homosexuality. H.R. 1592 would simply expand the current federal hate-crimes law to provide federal assistance to local governments in investigating all hate crimes based on race, religion, color, disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. It has widespread support from civil rights leaders.
So why does the Memphis City Churches group oppose the hate-crimes bill? Where did they get the erroneous claim that the bill would make it a crime to preach against homosexuality and gay rights? From the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and the Traditional Values Coalition, all extremist anti-gay political organizations.
These Republican political groups are targeting Democrats who support the hate-crimes bill by fanning the flames of homophobia and anti-gay prejudice, particularly in African-American churches. These groups are opposed to any recognition of the human rights of gays and lesbians. Even protection from hate crimes goes too far in granting gays and lesbians the "special rights" of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The Memphis City Churches Web site has links to all of these anti-gay groups and has lots of talking points against homosexuality and gay rights. There is no mention of AIDS, drugs, poverty, poor health-care, or crime affecting the African-American community. Shouldn't these Christian ministers focus on the problems in their own community instead of attacking the civil rights of gays and lesbians?
It is sad that a group of pastors would spend so much of their resources and energy to attack gays and lesbians and completely ignore the issues that Jesus Christ focused on. Jesus didn't teach his followers to build multimillion-dollar churches or attack the civil rights of others. He told them not to accumulate wealth and to give to the poor. Maybe this is not a Christian group at all.
In the meantime, a lesbian was attacked at a club in Dyer County on July 15th. Miranda Greer told Jackson, Tennessee, police that a man approached her when he saw her dancing with a male friend. The man thought she was a gay man because she looks masculine and started calling her names and telling her to leave. When she told him she was a lesbian, he responded by punching her in the face and then used a beer bottle to jab her in the eye four times before smashing the bottle over her head. I wonder if he thought he was also doing God's will?
Jim Maynard is a Memphis gay leader and political activist.