At his Town Hall meeting in Culpeper Tuesday night, Senator George Allen was confronted by someone he apparently wasn’t expecting.
Tully Satre is the founder and executive director of both Equality Fauquier/Culpeper, and the CEEVA Initiative, a statewide organization recently formed to defend the rights of Virginia’s GLBT youth. Tully is also a 16 year old high school student.
His exchange with Senator Allen is detailed on his blog, and was much more extensive than reported so far in the media. This was an incredibly brave example of speaking truth to power, in the midst of a hostile crowd cheering on Allen’s anti-gay remarks. Tully, in the course of this exchange, made it clear that equal treatment under the law is not a special right. He refused Allen’s attempt to reframe the issues, illustrating through the example of slavery that what the majority might believe can result in the violation of human rights, and that the Constitution was established to protect all Americans.
One person can make a difference. Because of Allen’s presidential aspirations, there were many reporters in that room, including from the Washington Post and New York Times. They all wanted to talk to Tully, which seemed to make Senator Allen very uncomfortable. (Why Allen was surprised and flustered to discover that a New York Times reporter was there is anybody’s guess, but he didn’t seem to like the idea that his remarks about our community and the Constitution were getting such broad exposure.)
Tully began by thanking Allen for his past support for the inclusion of sexual orientation in hate crimes legislation, and wanted to know why he had suddenly changed his position in 2005. He added “I’ve had several letters in the past few weeks, threatening my family and my life because I’m an openly gay Virginian.”
Allen’s response was reported in the Free Lance Star:
Allen said he didn’t support protecting sexual orientation as a civil right. He said he knew of several instances where anti-gay protestors were arrested for quoting Scripture at gay pride parades and charged with hate crimes under state laws.
“I just cannot in good conscience be on the side of passing a law that would limit people’s first amendment rights, particularly religious expression,” he said.
The article doesn’t describe the fact that the hostile Culpeper crowd cheered Allen’s remarks (this being a community that sends hate mail and death threats to a high school student and his family), or the rest of the exchange. Allen became rather tense, insisting over and over that gay people are not treated unequally, at one point shouting at Tully that he does have the “choice” to get married (“not to a man, I don’t,” he replied).
At any rate, Allen’s non-response to Tully’s original question raises more questions than it answered.
Allen’s voting record on GLBT civil rights is generally poor, but until last year he had supported including sexual orientation along with other personal characteristics in federal hate crimes law. In his 2000 Senate campaign, and in letters to constituents following his vote on the 2004 bill, Allen stated that he would support this inclusion as long as it didn’t “elevate ‘sexual orientation’ to civil rights status.”
The current bill is identical to the 2004 bill he voted for; so why did his position change?
First of all, Allen’s talking points in explaining his flip-flop were provided by Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network (they are identical to those used throughout 2005 by that organization in lobbying Allen to change his vote). His statement about the arrests of protesters at a Philadelphia Gay Pride event are based on an urban legend created in 2004 by the anti-gay group Repent America and propagated by media outlets such as The O’Reilly Factor. These protesters were supposedly facing 47 years in prison for “publicly reading Bible verses condemning homosexual behavior,” when they were in fact attempting to storm the stage and drown out the event program with personal insults shouted through bullhorns. They refused orders by police to relocate to an area across the street to exercise their First Amendment rights. Furthermore, the protesters prevailed in court – an utter refutation of Allen’s claim. Philly Pride has the full story, and video clips of the protesters.
One more thing: the leader of Repent America stated last month to the Philadelphia CityPaper that “God’s law” requires that gay people be put to death.
Now, what does any of this have to do with federal hate crime law? Not much. Here’s the pertinent clause of the amendment Allen voted for in 2004, identical to the one he will vote on this year:
(A) IN GENERAL- Whoever, whether or not acting under color of law, in any circumstance described in subparagraph (B), willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person– [emphasis added]
Nowhere here, or anywhere in the various subsections of this amendment, is speech mentioned. This is about physical assault. It has nothing whatsoever to do with limiting anyone’s First Amendment rights.
Certainly there will be more of these Town Hall meetings around the area, and Senator Allen should be given every opportunity to clarify exactly what his position is on bias-motivated crimes committed against GLBT people – especially as these are on the rise in Virginia along with the anti-gay rhetoric and misinformation churned out by the Anti-Gay Industry.
We have some questions for the Senator. To start:
- Do you believe that terroristic threats are protected by the First Amendment? Are there exceptions? Please provide examples.
- The organizers of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year refused to allow openly gay people to participate. If people had marched in the parade with buttons or signs identifying themselves as gay Catholics, is that protected speech? Would it have violated the rights of the parade organizers to freedom of assembly? If so, how does this example differ from protesters joining a Gay Pride event with bullhorns?
- Can you explain exactly what it means to “elevate [a characteristic] to civil rights status”? Please describe the process by which other characteristics protected under hate crimes law were so “elevated.”
- Is religion a characteristic that should be a protected class under hate crimes law? Why or why not? Is the belief in or practice of a particular religion an inherent trait of an individual?
- Does the motivation for committing a crime ever matter? For example, would there be any difference between an incident in which a group of Americans visiting another country were killed in order to steal their money, and one in which they were killed because they were Americans, to send a message to other Americans?
As always, we encourage open communication with all of our elected representatives, and will post opportunities for these conversations as we learn of them.