In an important speech delivered yesterday at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants assured Muslims they will receive legal protection if they are victimized because of their faith.
The Boston Globe reported Gants spoke to worshipers after the midday prayer service. He told his audience the Declaration of Rights in the Massachusetts Constitution would ensure they would be able to practice their religion and be free from religious discrimination, and said the constitution is designed to protect minority groups’ rights. Gants also pointed out that most ethnic groups had been in the minority at some time during their histories.
Gants’ wonderful comments came at a time in our country when anti-Muslim sentiment is rampant. With the continued strength of ISIS and the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, there have been calls – most notably by Republican candidates for president – for Muslims to be temporarily barred from entering the United States. Front runner Donald Trump has also suggested the government should shut down mosques and “take out” the families of terrorists.
Given this toxic discourse, the number of attacks against Muslims has skyrocketed in the last couple of months. The New York Times reported earlier this week that hate crimes toward mosques and Muslim Americans have tripled following the recent terrorist attacks. These incidents have included attacks against women and girls wearing hijabs, the shooting of a Muslim cab driver in Pittsburgh, and a knife attack against a Muslim woman in California. These attacks have generally been accompanied by anti-Muslim slurs. Leaders in the Muslim community say these are the same types of attacks that followed 9/11.
Putting aside the immoral nature of these attacks, there are specific laws that criminalize attacking people on the basis of their religion. There are various civil rights statutes in Massachusetts that punish defendants convicting of targeting their victims because of their race or religion. For example, it is a misdemeanor to commit an assault and battery upon a person in Massachusetts with the intent to intimidate the victim because of the victim’s color, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity. If the victim sustains bodily injury as a result of the attack, the crime is a felony. And if the attack is committed with a gun, the defendant can be sentenced to serve as many as 10 years in state prison.
Even without a physical attack, a person can be convicted of a civil right violation in Massachusetts by interfering with another person’s right to enjoy a legally-protected right. For example, if a person makes derogatory statements to his neighbor based on the neighbor’s race or religion, he is interfering with the neighbor’s right to secure housing. The Civil Rights statute in Massachusetts is very broadly written, so almost any acts of intimidation aimed at a victim based on race or religion can be prosecuted.
Hopefully Chief Justice Gants’ message to the Muslim community will resonate and will contribute to the reduction of crimes committed against Muslims.