Religious Vandalism, Prank, or Hate Crime?

Chico, California, rests halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon state border. For the past three years, a group of nontheists has assembled with the Atheists of Butte County to conduct a litter pick-up along a stretch of Highway 99. Last year, this group exceeded the state’s pick-up requirement and committed themselves to raising the bar in 2015.

But on the morning of January 12 the group’s president discovered that vandals had targeted their Adopt-a-Highway sign for the third consecutive year. CBS Sacramento branded this as the actions of “religious vandals,” while George Gold, coordinator of the Butte County Coalition of Reason, said, “We are more committed than ever to being part of our community and letting all nonbelievers, freethinkers, agnostics, and atheists know that we are here as their organization.” Not only has the Adopt-a-Highway sign been vandalized, but the billboard that heralded the launch of Butte County Coalition of Reason in 2012 was also defaced.

As this is the fourth incident of vandalism targeting this particular nontheistic group, is this now a “hate crime” or “hate incident”? Asking this question on the United Coalition of Reason’s Twitter account, followers reacted:

“I’m an atheist, this is not a hate crime. It’s vandalism.” @Philuva

“Hate crime? Leave the exaggeration up to us Christians.” @AaronThomas18

“Vandalism? Definitely. Defacing of public property? Yes. But ‘hate crime’? Really?” @melissajenna

“My feelings have nothing to do with it. Isn’t that an argument theists use?” @HumesGuillotine

A further tweet from @HumesGuillotine lies at the crux of the matter: “It’s vandalism. A hate crime though? You can’t really be an atheist and be for hate crime legislation. Wicked cognitive dissonance.”

Perhaps the cognitive dissonance is due to varying interpretations of the concept of hate crime. For instance, Washington, DC, classifies it as: “any criminal act or attempted criminal act directed against a person based on the victim’s actual or perceived race, nationality, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.” However, California’s definition is even broader, stating that “it is a civil right for a person to be free of violence or its threat against the person or his or her property, because of a person’s race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation, sex, sexual orientation, age or disability or position in a labor dispute, or because a person is perceived to have one or more of these characteristics (bases of discrimination are illustrative, rather than restrictive).”

On the other hand, perhaps the cognitive dissonance is due to our desire to protect free speech. The 1993 Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell stated that conduct but not “bigoted thought” can be punished when considering physical violence to a person. Perhaps, in this particular instance, the defendant did not intend for his words to incite the situation that ultimately ensued. Therefore, it requires the jury to determine the offender’s intent, whereas in some cultures, like the United Kingdom, the determination can be investigated at the police level and is acted upon earlier.

This then begs the question: when does free speech enter into the arena of offensive speech, and does the offensive speech lead to provocation of acts that could be judged as a hate crime?

Finally, does the context really make a difference when considering what constitutes a hate crime? For instance, is it “poor taste,” “hate speech,” or a “hate crime” to spray paint a swastika on the side of a trash can or near a synagogue? What about trying to impede the erection of a mosque? In Butte County Atheists’ home state of California, depending on the severity, the penalty could be a misdemeanor or even a felony. But what about continually vandalizing a highway sign featuring a nontheistic community?

Tell us your reactions to the situation encountered in Chico. Do you consider the continuous vandalism to be a hate crime, a prank, a nuisance, or targeted religious vandalism? If it isn’t a hate crime, what would you feel would be an example of a hate crime towards nontheists? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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  • Momofthree

    I don’t understand how being an atheist means that you are against hate crime legislation, just the opposite in fact. Would classifying these as hate crimes create further investigation into the matter? Usually, vandalism is tolerated and nothing is really done, but if the perpetrators could be convicted of a hate crime, it could deter future incidents.

  • Gordon

    Tagging or creative designs would be vandalism. Purposeful obliteration of meaningful phrases of the message constitutes emotional involvement: hate.

  • Kevin Fizz

    Defacing something for the sake of defacing it is vandalism–defacing something because you disagree with its message is a hate crime.

    • DaVinci

      Right on

      • The Gorn

        If you deface the side of a church building over and over that would be considered a hate crime. I don’t see this as any different.

        • Can you cite a case? Where are you getting this from?

          • E HERNANDEZ

            I will cite a global case: when Nazis vandalized and destroyed Jewish property, they were. I different than religious zealots destroying or defacing property today. Sound enough citation for you?

    • Something to consider.. If I spray painted over a Nazi swastika because I disagreed with their message, would I have committed be a hate crime? I think we need to acknowledge that the perpetrator(s) could have had good intentions. (Most) Christians believe they are spreading the message of love. Everyone is the hero in their own narrative.

      • Kevin Fizz

        Yes….You would be committing a hate crime unless the swastika was someplace it wasn’t supposed to be like on the side of a government building or somebody else’s private property. Just because 99% of the world thinks people brandishing swastikas are d*cks doesn’t mean you have the right to suppress their freedom of speech or expression. So yes, although it pains me, I would in fact still consider it a hate crime.

        Another example is the Westboro Baptist Church. I totally disagree with their message, find their methods utterly repulsive, but any violence against them at a protest would be considered a hate crime. So just because I’d “woot woot” the news article of the entire church burning to the ground because of a vandal I still think the person doing the arson should be prosecuted for a hate crime. But I certainly wouldn’t help the investigators short of violating the law. Quite honestly, the folks at the Westboro Baptist Church are really and truly just following the bible–they just happen to emphasize the parts most Christians want to ignore and use methods that offend most people.

        You didn’t give the name of a specific group that would paint a swastika so I won’t make the obvious presumption but the same rules apply. Just because a group itself is hateful and by decent (common) morality viewed as despicable and deplorable does NOT mean they are not protected from hate crimes against them. It’s the double edge sword of freedom which I wholly support…people are free to believe in bullsh*t and have the right to offend me, but they do NOT get to have that right if I cannot do the same.

        • You might be conflating the legal classification of a hate crime with denying someone freedom of speech. Perhaps a lawyer could shed more light on this, but a hate crime appears to require an act of violence against a person or group. I agree with your westboro example since you specified violence against them. However, stealing one of their “God hates fags” signs and replacing it with a “God loves everyone” sign is a better analogy. Illegal, perhaps. Hate crime? Legally I seriously doubt it.

          • Kevin Fizz

            My perception of the article, specifically the poll at the end, was because of the fact that the legal classification of “hate crime” is a localized definition. So what I’m saying is my definition of a hate crime is just that….my definition. Although my definition does fit in the description given in the article as Washington DC’s classification. To me…if you are doing something CRIMINAL that is related to (including denying) a person’s freedom to speech and you’re doing so because you disagree with the person’s opinion on race, religion, etc. it qualifies as a hate crime. You are doing it because you “hate” the person’s race, belief, etc. Even if you think you’re doing “the lord’s work” crossing out billboards and you are a goody-goody in your perceived appearance deep down you know there is a form a hatred. Not everybody wears their hatred on their sleeves.

            In terms of conflating it with denying freedom of speech…well…sure, for this situation. To me “hate crime” is a sort of adjective to another offense. Robbing a store? Crime. Robbing a store because the owner is Islamic and you hate “their kind”? Hate Crime.

            Another key element to a hate crime for me is…to quote the article: “actual or perceived race, nationality, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation”. Freedom of speech is often exercised for one of those reasons, but not exclusively. If I stop you from protesting the removal of a tree for “squirrel solidarity” it’s a violation of your freedom of speech, but not a hate crime.

            I guess my point is I’m trying leave no blurred lines which is what the law needs to do. Sometimes it’s hard to do, but it has to be done and I won’t draw the line only in my favor which is what many people do. To the Christians in the news video on another (exactly the same) billboard it’s only freedom of speech if it’s something they agree with! I won’t ever do that, although sometimes I’ll need to remind myself of it when I choke and obnoxious “Christian”. And if a crime is committed that is based on race, nationality, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation I’m calling it a hate crime.

            If you don’t draw the line it gets grey fast.

          • You make some good points. If the law was clear, there would be no need for discussion. It is my personal opinion that accusing the pranksters who did this of “hate” is pushing it too far. But I can also see the other side.

      • The Gorn

        I imagine the KKK truly believe they are spreading a message in the best interest of the country. That would not give them the right to deface black churches.

        • No, but this says nothing to the classification of the crime as a hate crime. According to legal definitions, someone needs to be assaulted. Vadalism would count only if it led to the physical harm of a member of the group the act was committed against. It should be easy to lookup cases of hate crimes that resulted in prosecution and see if any were a result of vadalism with nobody being harmed as a result of the vadalism. I could not find anything, but perhaps someone else can. Until they do, it is just uninformed opinions being posted.


        A pushy, hurtful Christian is a disgrace and a liar. Isn’t that what the religion teaches, that if you do those negative things you are a liar? QED

    • Morgan

      EXACTLY. There was definitely some hate involved for whoever vandalized the board.



  • hockeydog

    Thats a good question for a good lawyer.
    In layman’s line of thinking I would say no. But, we have to be practical here.
    Are we in a war of ideas and ideology? I would say yes we are.
    And in wars, should you use every weapon available, no matter how silly? Yes.
    The general public does not understand , I think, where the actual lines are.
    Ridiculous beliefs without evidence must be ridiculed and treated with contempt.
    I say make it a hate crime, as silly as it may sound.
    When in rome, use roman weapons.
    Put god or gods in a court of law and prove their existence or be quiet and sit down.
    Put bejebus and mo in a lab and test their magical powers of be quiet and sit down.
    Now can we proceed with the teachings of Einstein, Spinoza, Paine, and Jefferson.

    • Aaron

      Look I understand where you are coming from and I agree with the premise that there is a conflict of ideologies but if you want to call it a war then think about what the best strategies are. You seem to be suggesting that free thinkers should actively oppose religious groups using the same tactics as those religious groups. I don’t think that is a good idea. It is not always practical.
      Sometimes it is better to passively resist, particularly when your ideas and ideology are clearly superior. I am thinking of satyagraha here as the best strategy for free thinkers against religious belief. Think about it. Jesus did not use Roman weapons, he let Roman weapons be used on him and shortly (and few centuries) after the Roman Empire was Christian [forget the debate about the historicity of Jesus or the Christian teachings, you get my point. If it was a battle of ideologies, that strategy clearly worked in the long run and there is something to be learned from it]
      I and not arguing that we should be totally passive. Every idea should be open to scrutiny, criticism, and ridicule. But essentially, don’t stoop to win. Win based on merit, patience, and an unwavering insistence on truth. That is, in my opinion, the best and only way.

      • hockeydog

        I can’t argue with that logic. Good points.

  • Ryan

    They’re targeting only the fundamental statements of the group and removing them. It’s a repeated action toward a specific group. It’s a hate crime.

  • Jeremy Goins

    Let’s examine this from the other side of the table. What if someone were chronically defacing christian billboards? Wouldn’t that be considered a hate crime? Would not christians rally behind it as such since they are so “oppressed” here?

    The chronic nature of this makes it a hate crime or at least hate related. Pursue this as a hate crime, the time of christians getting to trample over non-christians needs to end. This end will only happen when we start standing up and using our government and it’s law to protect our secular values. We deserve the same protection and rights as christians, it’s time they are reminded of that.

    • FL1234

      Yes, it works both ways — if someone vandalizes a Christian billboard, it’s a hate crime.

  • Kyle McHattie

    It really makes no difference fundamentally. It is a crime. Put up a webcam, get the vandals actions in a recording. Require them to restore the sign to it’s proper condition. Then require them to attend a meeting of the Atheists of Butte County and apologize to every member, and provide a large number of hours of community service with them. That should solve the problem.

    • moreso

      How about directed ŕeadings and assigned book reports, then inclusion in a group discussion. Not to propagandize or expect to change the offenders belief system , but to open a mind with ideas and thought.

      • Arjen Bootsma

        You mean very well, but unfortunately, one of the defining characteristics of religious zealots is that their minds are closed shut to new ideas, to reason, to logic, to free thought.

      • Doubting Thomas

        You’re assuming that the perpetrators actually know how to read books.

    • FL1234

      Quite easier said than done — yes, buy and install a webcam — no electricity — what internet connection are you using — where are you going to buy and install the multiple cameras to get clear enough photos — not to mention the cameras themselves getting stolen and vandalized?
      And even if you have photos of the vandals, how are you going to connect the photos to actual names of people?
      And even if you have identified them, there’s no right to “require” them to do anything at all.

      • Kyle McHattie

        This could be easily done. I could do it myself in a couple of hours. And how do you figure there isn’t electricity? There is always electricity either nearby and or on the billboards themselves for lighting. Most cities have cell towers with even basic 3g for internet. Ever heard of traffic cams? As for clear enough photos, even a basic flipcam could take a clear enough photo and or series of photos or even video. The pictures would be used as evidence. Believe it or not vandalism is still investigated as a crime. As for requiring them to do something, that would be during the sentencing once the perps are identified. A judge has plenty of authority to require unusual measures including community service, which is quite common. All of this could be very easily done with basic technology. And it would cost less than the dozens of times they have to fix the sign.

        • FL1234

          Electricity nearby doesn’t mean “accessible electricity.” Most areas do NOT have public internet. Yes, there are traffic cams, but those are not focused on billboards. Many groups do not have the funding to purchase all the materials necessary to get good photos of vandals.
          Identification would be problematic, as well perhaps as convincing cash-strapped authorities to arrest and prosecute for vandalism.

          • Kyle McHattie

            I was using traffic cams as an example. It’s totally feasible to do this and would cost far less than fixing the billboard multiple times. HD cams are very cheap and with a fish eye and the correct software could identify someone easily. With the right emclosure and a small solar panel and a cheap cell data plan, this could be done for about $200. You’re obviously unaware of technological advances in the last 50 years 🙂 However, my original post was more about possible punishment for vandals than getting into a debate about how to catch them.

      • TheGodless

        Several motion detecting cameras that are commonly used by deer hunters would cost less than $100 and they could be hidden where they would be very hard to notice.

        • FL1234

          There’s one on sale for just under $50. Enough would need to be placed to be able to clearly ID possible vandals without being set off by every passing car, plus pay for batteries and checking on them. I belonged to a group which placed one or two of these billboards; there wasn’t a lot of extra money floating around in the budget.

    • greg miller

      good idea. investigate and educate.

  • Keith Babberney

    “You can’t really be an atheist and be for hate crime legislation. ” why not? I am opposed to people being targeted for who they are or what they believe. This is because I empathize with them and don’t want to be targeted myself. None of this has anything to do with whether I believe in god(s). Was the statement meant to apply specifically to atheists, in that atheism isn’t a religion and therefore not a protected class? I could at least understand that, but I don’t agree. Some people believe being gay is a choice. I say I should be entitled to believe (or not) without being targeted by bullies. Whether you call atheism religion is a semantic concern. I support laws against attacking people for who they are in an attempt to make them go away or change their minds. In the US, I have just as much right to be here as anyone.

    • SecularHumanist199

      I support laws against attacking people. Whether someone is attacked because they are gay or because someone thinks they may have something valuable to steal doesn’t change the impact of the attack. The attacker should be prosecuted and punished either way.

      • pdpTesla

        But the fact remains that ideally our penitentiary system should be reformatory. It would be less than useless to punish the crime but not correct the attitude or misinformation that guided the act.
        I can agree that the there should be laws against attacking people, but intent very clearly has an impact on the victims of crime. Would you rather cope with being a victim of circumstance or someone that has been intentionally targeted for their beliefs, race or social status?

        • Ebola-Chan

          “correct the attitude or misinformation that guided the act.”

          That is the worst idea I’ve ever read. Reeducation facilities are terrible and have no place in a regular society. I’d rather not live in a dystopia.

          • pdpTesla

            So you would rather someone be punished with no chance of recourse? And, worse yet, a grudge and higher likelihood of repeating the offense?

          • Ebola-Chan

            That has nothing to do with reeducating people. Reeducating people is teaching them what thoughts they’re allowed to have. I’d rather see people having their actual problems fixed instead of telling them what they’re allowed to think. If you just try programming them to not be racist then you’re not exactly going to fix their mental health issues.

    • Yeah, that statement wasn’t entirely accurate. I think it should have been more of a “Let’s be real careful about labeling something a hate crime, because American Christians have a persecution complex the size of Everest, and they WILL take any opportunity to turn this around on you.” Not to mention the liberal tendency (I’m liberal, before anyone asks) to over-dramatize Islamophobia as bigotry or racism. As far as California law is concerned, this is absolutly a hate crime and should proceed as such, but we have to be real careful about jumping the gun. Specifically, because the punishment for hate crime is an escalation, so too should be the accusation.

    • Alex

      If you have a choice to be gay or not to be gay, than I’m assuming you liked the idea of a cock in your mouth but since you chose to be straight you never acted on said thought correct? Or you’ve never actually thought that because you are straight and that’s just who you are. Period.

      • Keith Babberney

        sorry, I didn’t really finish my analogy. I know people don’t choose to be gay. My point was, I can be an atheist (not that I’m saying either way) whether it is a choice, or just how I am — just as gays deserve protection, whether or not it is a choice.

        The protected class in this case is religion; atheists are not protected, say the zealots, unless they admit they have a religion. But the fact is, it’s not my atheism that is the problem for these people. The problem is my lack of *their* religion.

        So this is still religiously motivated, whether or not I accept the absurdist, semantic notion that atheism is a religion. Thus, it a hate crime.

  • SecularHumanist199

    I agree that the reason for the crime is most likely hate for people who don’t believe the way that the religious do. How very “christian” of them. On the other hand, I have trouble with using the motivation for a crime as any criteria for its severity. Whether someone did this out of hatred, which was probably the case, or just because they wanted to vandalize something, the outcome is the same, and they should be punished for breaking the law.

    • mallthus

      Motive is a core component of American jurisprudence. Look at the varieties of homicides, for instance. It is a critical and necessary part of determining the severity of the crime and the appropriate punishment for the perpetrators.

  • Dr Jason D Heap

    Compare what you see here in Chico, CA with what folks did in St. Augustine, FL back in 2010:


  • David

    I’m a long-time secular humanist. But give me a break. What do you expect, especially from the far right? Just let it be. Focus on something more meaningful. It should be easy…

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      People ‘let things be’ in Europe in the 1930s.

  • David Barkin

    They hate Atheists. What seems to be the comprehension problem?

  • Phil Mcknife

    Strong dislike crime? It all depends on your perspective. A Muslim or Nazi defacing a Christian sign or vice versa: More likely to be a hate crime due to the history of violence. Any ‘vandalising’ is basically a threat or a reminder that they could get violent and nasty. Atheists/humanists etc have yet to (so far as i know) get violent or threatening. So when we deface, its disrespectful/highly amusing. As far as this goes, Christian vs Atheists etc, Christians in this case have done it amusingly through a play on words. To do so required them to use their thinking brains. Which is pretty much the whole point of Atheists etc. So not a hate crime. More falling into our trap.

  • jordan

    If multiple instances of this vandalism are caused by the same entities then, it should be valid as a hate crime. The extent at which that said entities are responsible is entirely up to trial. I personally believe that it is more likely that there are multiple, non related offenders.

  • Regardless of whether you agree with hate crime legislation in principle, I don’t see how anyone could deny that if it’s going to exist it should be applied equally–not with atheists/humanists treated as second-class citizens who aren’t subject to the same protections as everyone else (there’s that little thing called the 14th Amendment after all..)

    I suppose the crux of the issue lies in whether anti-atheist criminal acts qualify as being “based on religion”. Well, fortunately we have United States case law, where it has been pretty clearly established in the court system that yes, atheism is protected by the law as far as discrimination is concerned, just as “religions” are.

  • Cv

    Why do we even need the category of hate crimes? If something is a crime, what difference does it make what the emotional motivation for it was? All this ‘hate crime’ rhetoric does is reinforce an already absurd and arbitrary state of false political correctness. Crime is crime. It would be equally absurd to invent a category called love crimes. “I only raped her because I loved her!”.

  • Nicole Tarbuck

    Since the image shown is the board prior to vandalism, it makes it impossible to know what was said and done as far as the vandalism goes. The article really doesn’t give adequate information either. Yes it says that for three years this particular billboard was vadalised, but it doesn’t say whether other billboards were chosen for vandalism as well, and what marked those billboards. With the very limited information at hand, one cannot make an informed decision. It’s a very biased article to be honest. At the end of the day, if it was one of several that were randomly marked in non-anti-religion vandalism, than no, it is not a hate crime. If the vandalism is clearly anti-religious in nature, than yes, it is a hate crime. Either way vandalism is illegal, property was damaged, and the culprits deserve to pay for what they’ve done both financially, and with community service and/or jail time.

    • pdpTesla

      I would like to politely correct you. The bill board is supposed to say “Don’t Believe in God? Join the Club” ~ Butte County Atheists. The vandals tore out the “Don’t” and “Atheists”. The Atheists of Butte County group had commissioned similar signs which had been similarly defaced for the past three years. It was the Atheist GROUP’s signs that were being defaced, not just this sign on the highway.

  • Guest

    I’m kinda against the whole notion of a special category of “hate crimes” anyway. I don’t get why the purpose or the philosophy behind them.

    • Arjen Bootsma

      The purpose of the category ‘hate crime’ is motive, and motivation. And most likely, the perpetrators of hate crimes will continue targeting the objects of their hate.

  • Denver John

    It’s vandalism. I’m kinda against the notion of a special category for “hate crimes” anyway. I don’t get the rationale.

  • Alright, by California standards this is without question a hate crime. It’s laid out in the law, it isn’t a matter of opinion or interpretation. If we don’t like it, we can work to fix the law. “You can’t really be an atheist and be for hate crime legislation.” That’s not an accurate statement, it seemed hastily constructed, BUT the spirit of the statement contains a kernel of truth. Atheists walk a line that is clearly defined for us, but that is really narrow and confusing for people of faith. American Christians as a whole have a persecution complex you could huck a rhino through, and anti-liberal “liberals” like Ben Affleck want to label criticism as bigoted persecution. They’ll cry double standard when they try to turn it around on us in predictably clunky fashion, SO we must be careful not to jump the gun when crying persecution ourselves. The punishment for hate crime is an escalation over regular punishment, so the accusation must be viewed that way, as well.

  • Some Guy Somewhere

    You can’t really be an atheist and be for hate crime legislation

    Huh? Why can’t you?

  • mcgtrinsofla

    only i can stop the wheel,,,,,
    i will not hate,,,,,,
    i will ridicule, though,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  • J Whiz

    The act may have been committed out of hatred, but it isn’t a hate crime – more like a stupidity crime.

  • Wendy in San Antonio

    It seems to me, that the fundamentalists of all religions like to hate those not of their beliefs. I don’t think it does any good to hate and destroy others for their beliefs. But it is certainly disrespectful and in this case was indeed vandalism. The only thing that makes any sense in the world is tolerance for all religions, races, ethnic groups, whatever. Why is it so hard to live and let live in peace?

  • atheist in texas

    I wonderi f the crim is committed towards the idea of atheism or towards the organization specifically

    • Arjen Bootsma

      I doubt that the person who did this can make that particular distinction in the first place.

    • Betty

      I’m an atheist in Texas too! Howdy !

  • Pamela Wright

    Not really fair for me to say, as I am against defining crimes as “hate crimes” no matter what. A crime is a crime, and it doesn’t make me feel better if the person committing the crime doesn’t hate me. In fact, in some cases, it makes it worse. Did the people who did this hate the victims? IDK. Maybe they just think we’re wrong. So I have to go with just the effects of the offense. The highway sign, form pictures I’ve seen was actually slightly humorous and wouldn’t bother me. (The one I saw said, “Pray For” in spray paint under the atheist group’s name.) It didn’t alter in any way the actual message of the highway sign. You are free to pray for me all you want. I’ll think for you. We’ll both be ok. But the billboard was a bit worse because it actually interfered with their ability to get their message across on their privately paid for sign. But I still don’t think it fully rises to the level of “hate crime”. That’s just me. YMMV.

  • Brian

    Vandalism. Is it so surprising that childish beliefs yielded childish behavior?

  • “Hate crime” is losing its meaning. For now, I’d go with vandalism.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      But is it losing its meaning? After all, the non-theist community isn’t using it in such situations, which means that someone else is controlling its meaning and cutting non-theists out of the discussion altogether. (Think of Foucault’s discursive philosophy…those who control the discourse and the words used in the discourse have the power/knowledge.)

  • Malko

    They hate us cause they ain’t us!

  • Steve GeeWhizz

    Quite clearly in the 1993 Supreme Court ruling and the definition of the offense according to the state of California this is most assuredly falls under the classification of a hate crime. If someone defaced a right to life billboard then “no”. Or a pro-choice for instance then still “no”. Because those pertain to actions or behavior. A hate crime pertains to an individuals or groups essence.

  • watcher_b

    I’m ok with having the distinction between a regular crime and a “hate crime” within the context of discussion. I am not so sure about having different penalties for them because the distinction is so unclear. Unless we can empirically show that having such a distinction contributes to less crime or an objectively “better” society.

  • Guest

    I think hate crime should be reserved fro crimes against actual people, not property.

  • tiela

    I think “hate crime” should be reserved for crimes against people, not property.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      Tiela, question is, as mentioned in the article, what do we do about anti-semitic, homophobic or Islamophobic messages on property? Would that be exempt from “hate crime” legislation? If so, it would be saying that unless something happens to a person, we shouldn’t take it too seriously. “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” but words do hurt.

  • Michael Cannon

    To play devil’s advocate as it were. It’s certainly criminal vandalism. It may be a hate crime. That cannot be confirmed until the vandals are caught and the reason for the vandalism determined. I don’t think it can be officially recognized as hate crime with the element of bias and intent behind the act; even if it’s almost certainly likely that the vandals acted based on their religious beliefs.

    That said, I’m reasonably certain it’s hate crime. Now catch the vandals and confirm or deny that assumption.

  • Reverend Veritas

    According to the FBI’s definition of what a hate crime constitutes:

    A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

    Under those guidelines I’d say this repeated offense constitutes a hate crime considering that atheism can now qualify as a religion under US law.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      Veritas, it’s under US law for “establishment clause” purposes.

    • FL1234

      This would be a violation of California law — not sure if there’s a nexus for federal prosecution — the billboard in the article is in California.

  • DaVinci

    If someone plastered the ‘N’ word over an ad featuring a black person it sure would be. Same dif.

  • Wilhelm Guggisberg

    Just for the sake of giving the example of generous tolerance and being that there is not any derogatory consign in the act, let us keep it as a simple vandalism (I’m a atheist myself).

  • Cozman57

    This is vandalism plain and simple. I agree with the person who tweeted that we should let the christians be the whiners.

  • cannotvote

    One nation under god – pah! More like a bunch of hateful xrstians intent on pissing everyone else off, in just about anyway they can!

  • Tracy Hartford

    Some definitions include violence in order for it to be considered a hate crime. Violence needs to include physical force and the threat of bodily harm. Vandalism is not the same as violence. To me this would be the same as if someone were to take a proselytizing Christian billboard, and flip the message. It is disrespectful, but it isn’t threatening. Even though the message is being changed, there is nothing hateful or overtly threatening in what they did.

    • Arjen Bootsma

      A synagogue spray painted (=vandalized) with swastikas is considered a hate crime. Therefore, for it to be a hate crime it does not require physical force or (threat of) bodily harm.

      • Tracy Hartford

        The reason that is considered a hate crime is because the swastika is a symbol that is associated with an ideology that is full of hate, and has been associated with massive amounts of violence, so its every appearance is a threat.

        • Dr Jason D Heap

          Good point, Tracy, other than that our Hindu friends have respected the swastika as a symbol of respect and progression for thousands of years before the Nazis hijacked it.

          • Guest

            Sort of like #gamergate hijacked the tag from ethics in games journalism?

          • Tracy Hartford

            Meanings change over time. #gamergate hijacked the tag from ethics in games journalism.

        • William Bivens

          Religions by their nature are exclusionary. It is one tribe versus other tribes. This leads to hateful behavior in the name of religion.

      • Dr Jason D Heap

        Arjen, to scrawl words on a sign isn’t much physical force, nor is placing a wreath on top of a highway sign, as Butte County Atheists have said. It did require, however, some physical force to screw a sign into the highway sign’s pole, and a lot of physical force to cut out a large swath of industrial grade vinyl from a billboard. 🙂

  • Anthony Weisenberger

    They hate us cause they anus.

  • Stephen LaRoche

    I don’t know how to correctly define hate crime, but my contextual understanding is that hate crimes are committed against particular persons. At the very least, the intention of the defacer has everything to do with how we categorize the action. Here is how google defines ‘Hate Crime’. If we use this definition…

    hate crime


    a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.

    …then it becomes clear that the act can technically qualify (by this definition) as a hate crime if the intent of the doer allows it to qualify. In support of the theory of this being a hate crime we can certainly say that prejudice (preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience) must be used in any judgement on an assertion which cannot be proven or dis-proven. Most would consider the validity or invalidity of Christianity (or any religion) to be this type of assertion. When facing this kind of question it is often best to remember that the conclusion relies heavily on definition and intent. Sometimes I find that people agree and don’t know it or disagree and don’t know it simply because the multiple parties of the argument choose to define words in the argument differently. I suggest defining ‘Hate Crime’ and then asking this question in an open forum again.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      Stephen, I chose 3 pieces of legislation–California, Washington DC, and the UK–as examples to show just how difficult it is, contextually, to define “hate crime.” The definition is as broad as the USA is wide, hence the difficulties encountered in applying the law’s definition equally in all places.

  • cbert

    I don’t mind so much what the charge is so long as the perpetrator(s) get convicted.

  • Dan Mitchell

    Hate crime.

  • Chris Suits

    they don’t believe their own BS enough to leave others alone

  • Aaron

    I am an atheist but I do not consider this a hate crime. Sure, it may be based on emotion and religion but the message itself is not hateful, simply ignorant. If the vandals wrote something like “atheists burn in hell” or something menacing of that nature, I would be more willing to view this as a hate crime.
    If I saw a Christian sign on the highway (as I often do driving through Kansas) and someone wrote under it something like “celebrate logic” (I’m not a good vandal, obviously) I would laugh, probably take a pic, and move on.
    At most it’s dumb Christian vandals. Obnoxious and ignorant but benign as far as targeted vandalism goes.
    Some people might make the argument that Christians would call this a hate crime and get worked up but Christians and Atheists are different. There is no reason to get worked up every time religious people do something dumb.

  • PolarVortex

    Turn the question around: If a religious sign is defaced just once (let alone 3 years running), would the religious folks call it simple vandalism? What’s good for the gander…

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      I think that what we’d all like to see here, PolarVortex, is for the law of our country to be applied equally and fairly to everyone and not just reserved for a select few. As you say, goose/gander, why not stand up and say “enough is enough” and demand equal treatment before the law if other groups are allowed to do so and receive the benefit of the law’s protection? Just a thought…

      • PolarVortex

        Oh that would be swell. Unfortunately key positions in the criminal justice system of many jurisdictions are elected. (County sheriff, lower court judges, District Attorneys). Try getting elected dog catcher by claiming to be non-theistic. In my opinion, you have more chance of being elected to anything if you’re a black lesbian Christian than if you’re a white male non-theist. (I have nothing against either African Americans or lesbians, but you get my drift). But even with unelected officials, the criminal justice system will not take a complaint of hate crime against atheists seriously. (If it ever happened, I’ve yet to see it).

        In theory, the law protects everyone equally. In reality, blacks and latinos consistently get short-changed, as do women who report being raped. In reality, atheists in this country can expect precious little in the defense of their constitutionally guaranteed rights.

        • Dr Jason D Heap

          PolarVortex, So we’ve identified an area that needs correcting…let’s all work on it! No point in saying “There it is” only to leave it and hope it fixes itself.

  • spadlo

    Act of cowardice.

  • robert

    If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from South Park, it’s that every crime is a hate crime.

  • Hmm. I tend to think of hate crimes as crimes against persons rather than crimes against property, but I’m persuaded. It’s on the far mild end of the spectrum of hate crimes, but it fits. Hopefully defacing the sign means that the humanist message has gotten earned media that more than makes up for the number of people who missed seeing the intact billboard.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      Valerie, “There’s no smoke without fire.” 3 times that this has happened makes me look for the fire…

  • Dr Jason D Heap

    Check out how a local newspaper spun the story of Chico:

  • Staci Priest

    While I can understand how some see it as a hate crime, I feel that the idea violates the spirit of the legislation. Those laws were made to protect people, not property. No one was hurt, so let it go. But I do have to ask, since this keeps happening, why hasn’t anyone taken steps to monitor the signs better and catch the vandals?

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      From what I am told by Butte County CoR, the authorities expect the local group to erect cameras–if they choose to do so. This makes me feel as if the authorities aren’t really that bothered, or at least that’s the message I feel they are sending out.

  • Michael Kelley

    According to the legal definition listed in the article then this is a hate crime. The criminal act of vandalism was based on religion (or lack thereof) and that fits. The question of if it should be or not is a different matter, and I am ambivalent on that.

    • Dr Jason D Heap

      Michael, Your feelings of ambivalence are shared by many commentators below, and I’d venture to guess that if we were to ask people in our communities, they’d share similar responses (especially as it’s 60% in-favour of calling it a “hate crime”). However, I think it’s appropriate and timely to open up such a discussion to the larger non-theist community.

      • Michael Kelley

        I guess where my ambivalence comes from is not so much calling it a hate crime, but from my association of hate crimes with crimes of violence and the draconian penalties those crimes deservedly get. So the next question is what would be the consequence of calling this crime against property a hate crime?

        • Dr Jason D Heap

          Michael, I honestly can’t foresee what the consequence would be, whether intentional or unintentional. I think this also might be one of many reasons why some folks are hesitant to open up dialogue on the subject.

          I appreciate and respect your openness about your feeling on the topic.

  • G R Street

    In my view, a hate crime is a criminal act intended to intimidate a victim because of their race, religion, creed or what have you. I’m not yet convinced these vandals meant to do just that.

  • Gregor-the-Greg

    I think. “Believe in God. Join the Club” is an equally good athiest message. Points out the sheep like mentality and unexamined world view of the majority of theists wbo have accepted lies that have been spoon fed to them since birth.

  • James P

    It might be politically motivated vandalism, but I don’t think that makes it a hate crime, whatever one of those is. I’m not sure that if I stab a man to rob him that’s somehow better than if i stab a man because i hate him.

  • StMats

    While it may fit the legal definition of a hate crime, I am
    uncomfortable with the idea. It’s just a little to close the the
    concept of a ‘thought crime’. Prosecute the actions; there are already
    laws against violence and vandalism. Another thing to consider is at
    what point will free speech be labeled as a ‘hate crime’? If I publicly speak out against a religious sect am I then guilty of a
    hate crime? This may seem far fetched to some people, but it’s only one step farther to label criticisms leveled at religion as a ‘hate crime’.

  • charlie_CA

    It can’t be a hate crime because the action wasn’t directed at a person or group of people. It was directed at a sign. While we can, and should, rail against this hostility toward our message, let’s not confuse that with hostility towards actual people. Hating an idea or a philosophy isn’t the same as hating a people or a person.

  • Bob V

    Hate crime? I have yet to learn what a “like” crime is.

  • jdinbigd

    Regardless of the vandal’s motives, there remains the expense of cleaning or replacing the billboard. To avoid or lessen this expense, I would suggest the following: When the billboard is erected, spray over areas likely to be defaced with a clear liquid silicone spray lubricant, or use a rub-on silicone wax. Virtually nothing will adhere to the treated surface, frustrating the would-be vandals to no end, and saving costs of replacing billboards. Silicone may need to be re-applied from time to time.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Vandalism, not a hate crime IMO. Even though hatred most likely fueled the motivation behind the crime.

  • pam

    You can bet the GODLY would be screaming ”hate crime,” if it happened to their ads!

  • terraton

    I suspect it will not be considered a hate crime until and unless it can be proven that someone gets killed for being an atheist first, or there is repeated violence against people because they are atheists. After that, all kinds of non-violent defacement acts could be reinterpreted as hate crimes—because they are perceived as realistically threatening safety of life and limb.
    As for Butte County, when you say, “Join the club,” there are automatic reactions triggered because it is a commonly used phrase to suggest most of us experience whatever it is one is talking about–in other words, join the majority. To someone who anxiously feels their religious ground slipping away under their feet, it may seem threatening, as if perhaps their world will be left behind. I think it is better to say, “Join us,” or “Join our group.” Then there is no implied takeover threat.

  • cgosling

    Hate crime or not, those who defaced the sign need to have a “heart to heart” with their God.

  • Excelsior

    This is most certainly a hate crime. Vandalism is more or less random. When something or someone is directly targeted for its belief or stance on a topic or situation then it’s an act of hate directed at that group or person. The person(s) who did this didn’t do it “just because”. They did it to bully, harass, or intimidate an intended target, the target in this case being Atheists.

    I for one would like to see Butte County Atheists put the billboard back up with a security camera to catch those responsible. They should then be prosecuted against to the fullest extent of the law. Christians already have a sense of superiority and privilege in this country and need to be shown that they cannot do whatever they want because they are the majority. Allowing this just sends a message that atheists are free game and open targets to which christians can project their will upon.

  • gregorymose

    It is not a hate crime to disagree with a message. It is a hate crime to target a person (or their property) because of who they are, including their political or religious/belief identity. Therefore, to try to limit speech, to shout someone down, to vandalize billboards containing offensive messages – these things may be right or wrong or even criminal, but they are not hate crimes. To vandalize harass/threaten/injure a person because he/she belongs to a particular class of people is a hate crime. So – leaving aside the fact that in this case an adopt-a-highway sign is not the actual property of the group, as far as I’m aware – the question becomes whether the vandals are targeting atheists, or atheism. If targeting atheists as a r group out of a desire to persecute them, then yes it might be a hate crime. If they are just trying to shut down an point of view, then it’s vandalism. In this case, it seems clear that the vandalism is aimed at registering opposition to an idea rather than persecuting a group based on race, religion. etc. So yes it sucks, yes it’s vandalism, but no, it’s not a hate crime. By the way, free speech has nothing to do with it in this case. The First Amendment prohibits the government from passing laws to abridge our right to free speech (subject to certain limitations), but there is not constitutional right we can claim against fellow citizens. We have the right to speak. They are within their rights to tell us to shut up. What makes the act criminal is the vandalism, not the inhibition of speech.

    In answer to the swastika example below – that would not be a hate crime because it is merely an attack on an idea. (To rethink the question, would anyone consider it a hate crime to spray paint “screw capitalism” on the wall of a bank? Probably not.).

  • JWR

    Targeted religious vandalism seems to cover this. Makes Religious folks nervous to see this. Especially those who may be weak in their faith.

  • Elliott Gussow

    I have reservations about the concept of hate crimes. A crime is a physical action. Use of the term “hate” requires the state to have Thought Police. Yes, this is vandalism, destruction of private property or whatever. What difference does it make why the perpetrator did the deed? The result is the same. In my opinion, the concept of hate crime should be unconstitutional.

    • squeak

      I agree! Thank you, Elliott, for raising this point.

      I’ve never thought clunking a person over the head is less or more a crime if the person is a member of a protected group or just someone someone else felt like clobbering. I think the whole category is misguided and a disservice to those in the singled-out groups as well as those not in any specially-treated group. But at least hate crimes aren’t considered less serious because “It’s nothing personal, I just don’t like the group you’re part of.”

      Clearly, it can be inferred that vandalizing these billboards is because of the subject matter–some people hate atheism. But the crime is vandalism, even if the culprits couldn’t read and randomly picked that sign. Or maybe they just don’t like its location, or the colors, or the company that rents the signs, or…. It would be the same crime if the sign were advertising a local diner or car wash, or touting flu shots or tax services.

  • Bob Eldridge

    Some theists simply cannot accept the good without god message and have a fit when they see any communication of said message. I do think that this constitutes a hate crime. It is a crime against the creed of humanists. Most of us do not see ourselves as a religion and the lawmakers need to add something to the law that is inclusive of us too.

  • Claire

    Repeated vandalism of private property? Install video cameras, post signs of criminal penalties, alert local media and law enforcement, etc. Agreed on the term “hate crime” coming dangerously close to thought policing.

  • paddicakes

    they selected specific words — that is to send a message and therefore comes under a targeted crime

  • Charles Vibbert

    This is a hate crime. If the shoe were on the other foot, the news would have it listed as a hate crime headlining the 6 o’clock news. The definition according to the FBI is a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Vandalism being a criminal offense, defacing property constitutes this as a hate crime since the message on the billboard clearly represented the group’s views.

  • Michael Russo

    If you are caught calling someone a N@$$3R to their face, and it is recorded, I’m pretty sure that is a hate crime. No physical assault necessary. It’s threatening language, which can be considered assault. Someone just needs a reasonable belief that they are not to be treated well or fairly and that their rights will be violated if they choose to continue in the area.

  • Chuck Messenger

    It makes me very queasy to use the legal system in the way you are suggesting. Your sign was defaced by religious bigots. That itself is a message. My suggestion is to turn a negative into a positive. Make the defacement part of the message. Use some creativity.


    This has to be the most simple-minded issue that has ever been overcomplicated. There is no Constitutional right to try to convert someone to a religion, because “convert” means “change”, and our rights do NOT include the right to change another. My statement is illustrative rather than restrictive and you all know what I mean. Atheists etc. have the same right as Christians and everyone else, to live freely and without fear. Anyone participating in the opposite of that freedom is guilty of a hate crime, whether it is prosecutable or not. It is time religions stop getting a free pass to trample everyone’s rights!


    Let me tell you all something. A computer service man came to my home to install my new computer. He owns his own business and keeps a low profile. He deceived me, nosed into my life all in an attempt to convert me especially after I told him to stop. This was agreed by several counsellors who helped me, unanimously, to be a form of rape, or rather a rape-like verbal assault. My rabbi was furious about it, and I even called the local rape hotline because there were few to talk to. Does THAT sound “Christian” to anyone? This monster did that out of Jesus-inspired love?! At the very least it was a hate crime along with being an instance of assault. I am no attorney, so I do not even know if I can have him prosecuted. All because he wanted me to have JE!SUS!–and that is the real problem. For this record, I am a Jew and a freethinking BUDDHIST by religion.


    …so there I think lies the answer. We already have hate crime legislation that lays out a good ethogram. But we must also think. A negative, harmful, malicious action which doesn’t even have to address intent is enough, in my opinion, to constitute an act of hatred. A hate crime certainly requires a criminal action accompanying the other actions. How can anyone even debate this?