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.