State lawmakers in 1994 increased the penalties for crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity or physical or mental disability. Minimum sentence for a Class A felony under the law is 15 years, as opposed to 10. But not for crimes motivated by sexual orientation.
The Human Rights Campaign reports that 21 states plus the District of Columbia include sexual orientation in their hate crime laws. Eighteen states, including Alabama, do not, said David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign.
"It is shocking, but it is becoming more and more prevalent and we've got to do something to stop this," he said. "We hate to politicize them because they are human tragedies, but our government must take steps to curb this violence."
Barbara & Christopher Purdom
Interfaith Working Group Coordinators
"We are all responsible when people who have been set apart, stereotyped, and legally discriminated against are attacked for being different. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people do not have the same legal rights and responsibilities that everyone else takes for granted. They continue to be portrayed (inaccurately) both as a threat to society at large and as condemned by all religious institutions. We appreciate that your reports about Billy Jack Gaither mentioned both his own religious observance and clergy who held the memorial service where he was killed. But we can't just speak out against killing. Religious people need to stand with those who are systematically oppressed and speak out against violence and discrimination and for equality and inclusion of all people."
The above letter went out on IWG letterhead listing 17 congregations and organizations and 61 clergy from 15 religious traditions.
Charles Monroe Butler, Jr. and Steven Eric Mullins, confessed to the murder. In their confessions, they alleged that Gaither had made a sexual advance toward one of them. Killers affirmed that their Gay victim will spend eternity in Hell...
Framing the story with undue focus upon Butler and Mullins' allegation of a sexual advance from Gaither lends credence to the "blame the victim" mentality and the "homosexual panic" defense. It suggests that Gaither's alleged actions somehow gave Butler and Mullins license to commit murder, because he was gay. Sexual orientation - perceived or real - does not give license to discriminate, perpetuate violence, or commit murder.
There is a direct and documented connection between anti-gay rhetoric, attitudes and violent attacks. During the past year, there has been a coordinated and deliberate rise in anti-gay rhetoric from politicians and other public figures. The fallout from this hate speech is devastating, as seen in this incident with Billy Jack Gaither.
Integrity reacts with grief and outrage at the brutal murder of another gay man, the second within six months. Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in Alabama on February 19, 1999. We ask the Bishop, clergy, and all members of our diocese, and people of goodwill everywhere to join us in prayer for him and for his family as they mourn his loss. We call on religious leaders of all faiths and denominations to not only make statements condemning this brutal murder, but also to take action to uphold, defend and protect the right of lesbian and gay people in our country to a life free from fear and hatred.
Specifically we ask the leaders of our Church and others actively to support Hate Crimes legislation on the local and national level. Such laws are needed, if for no other reason, than to send a clear message that violence directed toward gay and lesbian people is not acceptable in our society. Just one week prior to the murder, Integrity - Alabama had sponsored a resolution calling on the Diocese of Alabama to take a stand and urge lawmakers to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that would include sexual orientation. Unfortunately the resolution was defeated in committee and never made it to the convention floor.
Billy Jack Gaither was killed at a place often used for the celebration of Holy Baptism. This evil juxtaposition only heightens our grief and outrage. We hope, however, that it is a further and final call to action for the Church to stand strongly for the fundamental right to life and the dignity of every human person.
Gaither's slaying brought calls for tolerance Saturday from the head of Alabama's Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Also on Saturday, two mothers of gay men who were victims of hate-motivated slayings offered their sympathy to the Gaither family.
The Right Rev. Henry N. Parsley, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, called Gaither's death a "tragedy."
"This sad event in our state reminds us all of the terrible consequences of prejudice and hate in our life together," Parsley stated. "Let us pray that it will spur us to deeper tolerance and understanding in our human differences."
"They are our sons and our daughters whom we love," said the Rev. Karen Matteson, pastor of the Birmingham Unitarian Church, speaking of gays and lesbians.
The Rev. Lawton Higgs Sr., pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Reconciler, said that Christians must abide by two commandments: "Jesus said for us to love God and to love our neighbor," he said. "Billy Jack Gaither was a neighbor."
Roger Lovette, pastor of the Baptist Church of the Covenant, said Gaither should not be remembered as a symbol, but as a person. "He was like the rest of us with hopes, dreams and needs," Lovette said.
After a two-hour memorial service inside the church, people lit small candles and stood outside singing "This Little Light of Mine."
Across the street from the brick church, a handful of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., held anti-gay signs in protest.
Max Griffies, 9, stood near the church's step and held a sign declaring, "God loves all people." Max's mother, Leah Griffies, said it was important for her son to attend the rally.
"I want him to know you don't kill people, regardless of who they are, and especially for what they believe in," she said.
Max said it pained him to see the protesters across the street. "It makes me feel disgusted because everybody is created equal and all people are created by God," he said.
Gaither is becoming a symbol for the gay community's struggle against hate crimes. His death is being compared to that of Matthew Shepard. It's also being held up as an example of why lawmakers should include sexual orientation in a law meant to deter crimes motivated by race or religion.
"I hope legislators realize that sexual orientation is one of the things that is causing hate crimes throughout the country," said Marge Ragona, pastor of predominantly gay Covenant Metropolitan Community Church in Birmingham. Her church holds Bible study sessions in Sylacauga and although Gaither did not attend, church members knew him.
"This is a copycat murder of Matthew Shepard," Ms. Ragona said. "These are two young men who apparently think hate crimes are worth imitating."