KEVIN LEININGER: Quest for Hoosier hate-crime bills aims to send a message — but would it be a good one?

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Kevin Leininger

When award-winning author Stephen Jimenez visited Laramie, Wyo., following the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, he was seeking information for a screenplay about a gruesome crime everybody agreed had been committed against a gay man by a couple of redneck homophobes. Jimenez, who is gay himself, never imagined the evidence would lead to a far different conclusion — one that incurred the wrath of advocates who had successfully turned Shepard into a gay-rights martyr and the namesake of a 2009 federal hate-crimes law.

Was Shepard’s murder any less heinous or tragic because it appears he was killed not because he was gay but because his attackers — one of whom had a sexual relationship with Shepard — wanted to steal his drugs? Jimenez didn’t think so, telling the Guardian that “Nothing in this book takes away from the iniquity and brutality of the crime . . . but we owe Matthew and other young men like him the truth.”

America’s leading LGBT magazine, however, insisted otherwise. After Jimenez published “The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths about the Murder of Matthew Shepard” in 2013, the Advocate responded with an article entitled: “Why I’m Not Reading the ‘Trutherism’ About Matthew Shepard.”

“The anger directed at me has been pretty extreme,” Jimenez said. “People object to the idea of the book, rather than what is in the book.”

I suppose the same could be said, ironically enough, for many of the people fighting to protect Indiana’s status as one of only five states without a hate-crimes law. They aren’t bigots or soft on crime but fear their freedom of speech and religion, among other things, will be endangered should the Legislature bow to the very sort of political pressure that greeted Jimenez’s book.

“(A hate-crimes bill) is a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, so why are they pushing it? You’re naive if you read the signs of the times and not see where this is going,” said the Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne whose on-line petition opposing an Indiana hate-crimes bill (find it at change.org) has attracted about 1,200 supporters in a little more than a week.

Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, supports a law that would allow stiffer penalties for bias-based crimes and insists the lack of such a law has hurt Indiana’s ability to recruit residents and jobs. And 100 supporters of a group called Indiana Forward rallied at the Statehouse earlier this month to demand passage. But to Scaer, president of Allen County Right to life and a founding member of Shepherds United, a group of clergy advocating traditional social positions based on natural law, the “Forward” in the group’s name is simply a synonym for “progressive.”

“If we believe in Hoosier values, the last thing we want to do is align ourselves with Google and Starbuck’s values. Our state is doing just fine (economically) without catering to those who flash a little money in front of us.”

As a Lutheran pastor, Scaer knows there is sin and evil in the world — even in Indiana. Although the state has no hate-crime law it does track such crimes, and in 2016 there were 35 crimes against blacks reported, 13 targeting sexual orientation and two targeting whites. Lack of such a law may result in under-reporting, advocates say.

But would such a law really deter hate crimes? In 2017, an avowed white supremacist who admitted to committing a “hate crime” when he stabbed to death a black Fort Wayne resident named Samuel Hardrix in 2016, was sentenced to 65 years in prison. Shepard’s killers were given two life sentences even though Wyoming had no hate crime law, and still doesn’t. And when then-Gov. George W. Bush refused to support hate crime legislation in Texas after the brutal 1998 dragging death of African-American James Byrd by three white supremacists, he was condemned by the NAACP and others even though Texas executed Lawrence Russel Brewer for the crime in 2011, John King was sentenced to death and Shawn Berry got life in prison.

What has happened to Brownsville, Ind., teacher John Kluge has no direct connection to the hate-crime movement, but Scaer considers it a warning nevertheless. Kluge recently resigned under fire after refusing to address transgender students by their chosen name — a school policy he said was counter to his religious beliefs. When such beliefs are equated with “hate,” Scaer said, life is made increasingly difficult in the work place and elsewhere for traditional Christians.

As the Jimenez backlash shows, truth itself can be the enemy when identity politics and the law collide. So perhaps State Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, is on to something by supporting a bill that would allow judges to consider a defendant’s bias because of the “victim’s real or perceived characteristic, trait, belief, practice, association or other attribute the court chooses to consider” without creating specific protected classes — or sending a political message where the desire for blind justice should rule.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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