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Religious Tolerance logo

U.S. hate crimes

Definitions by various groups, State/federal laws.

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1. Our descriptions of various group's definitions of hate crimes is believed to be accurate when that information was added this essay. However, groups do occasionally change their definitions, so the citations may not be accurate today.

2. We are not experts in American law. Thus, our interpretation of what constitutes a hate crime is for general public education only. If you feel that you may have committed a hate crime, or that you may be the victim of a hate crime, please consult a qualified lawyer if you wish to clarify your status.

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What makes a crime into a hate crime?

  • The FBI's hate-crime report for 2002 quotes a statement about hate crimes by the American Psychological Association:
    "...not only is it an attack on one's physical self, but is also an attack on one's very identity." Attacks upon individuals because of a difference in how they look, pray or behave have long been a part of human history. It is only recently, however, that our society has given it a name and decided to monitor it, study it and legislate against it." 1
  • The FBI defines a hate crime (a.k.a. bias crime) to be:

    "a criminal offense committed against a person, property or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender's bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin." 2

    For some reason, they left out gender and gender identity.

  • Public Law #103-322A, a 1994 federal law, defines a hate crime as:

    "a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person." 3

    Again, they left out gender identity, which is to be expected in a law made almost two decades ago. Gender identity refers to transgender persons and transsexuals. Widespread concern for their equal rights and protections is a relatively recent development.

Crimes motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability were already defined as hate crimes prior to the signing into law of the 2009 federal hate crimes bill on 2009-OCT-28. However, extending the convicted criminal's sentence to those types of hate crimes was only possible once the bill became law.

It is important to realize that crime laws protect every person in the U.S. against crimes motivated by a hatred of the victim's sexual orientation -- whether the victim has a heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual sexual orientation. It protects persons of all genders: males, females and intersexual persons. In fact, it protects every person in eight different ways.

Our interpretation of these various definitions is that:


If a thug, seeking money or valuables, beats up a victim at random, the assault would probably be considered a crime, but not a hate crime.


If a person assaults a friend or acquaintance because of anger at some action that the latter took, the assault would probably be a crime, but not be a hate crime.


If a person hates gays, finds out that one of his friends is gay, and assaults him because of the friend's sexual orientation, the assault would probably be considered a hate crime.


If a thug beats up a stranger and was selected because of their race, it would probably be a hate crime.

Under the Hate Crime Statistics Act of 1990, the FBI has been reporting hate crimes based on perceived race, religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Since 1994, their reports have included disability.

Special concerns by religious conservatives:

Some religious conservatives look upon hate crime laws as a serious threat to their religious freedom. They are not concerned about their freedom to hold different religious beliefs. Rather, they are concerned about their freedom to criticize others, promote discrimination against them, and/or to urge that the others' civil rights be limited. They are concerned that if a pastor delivers a hate speech or composes a hate essay denigrating all Jews, or African-Americans, or gays, or some other group, that they might be prosecuted under the 2009 law. However, such speech or writing would probably not be legally considered a hate crime anywhere in the United States, because no criminal act has occurred. Hate speech itself -- including religious hate speech -- is protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

However, such hate speech might be considered a hate crime elsewhere in the world, Some countries like Canada have hate propaganda laws that target hate speech in addition to the hate crime laws that target hate-motivated violence. These two types of laws are frequently confused -- sometimes intentionally.

Some religious conservatives have expressed concern that a pastor's sermon or writings might so inflame a member of their congregation that the latter might be motivated to pick up a baseball bat and bash some strangers who he/she believes to be gay. Again, no conspiracy exists between the pastor and the gay basher to commit a crime, and thus the pastor could not be prosecuted under the hate crimes law.

Concerns by religious conservatives resulted in a clause being added to the hate crimes bill to emphasize that charges under the law could not be made because of hate speech. Since the fall of 2009, we have been on the lookout for such charges in the U.S. As expected, none have ever occurred.

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Official definitions of hate crimes:

Typical hate crime laws criminalize the use of force, or the threat of force, against a person because they are a member of a specific, protected group. 4 Four definitions of the term "hate crime" are: 

bulletHate Crimes Statistics Act (1990): "... crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, including where appropriate the crimes of murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation, arson, and destruction, damage or vandalism of property." (Public Law 101-275).
bulletBureau of Justice Administration (BJA; 1997): "Hate crimes--or bias-motivated crimes--are defined as offenses motivated by hatred against a victim based on his or her race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or national origin."
bulletAnti-Defamation League (ADL): A hate crime is "any crime committed because of the victim's actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender [male or female] or sexual orientation." 5
bulletNational Education Association (NEA): "Hate crimes and violent acts are defined as offenses motivated by hatred against a victim based on his or her beliefs or mental or physical characteristics, including race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation."  6

The word "perceived" is important, because many vicious assaults are based on the incorrect belief that the victim is Jewish, gay, or a member of some other group that the perpetrator hates.

About 45 states have hate crime statutes protecting various groups. Some laws are restrictive and only protect a member of a group if she/he is involved in specific activities. For example, the 1969 federal law only applied if the crime happens when a person is attending a public school or is a juror, or is at a federal or state-sponsored event, or is participating in a few other "federally protected activities." The update in 2009 greatly expanded the conditions under which a hate crime could be prosecuted as a hate crime.

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Existing state and federal hate crime laws:


The original 1969 federal hate crime law:

Covered race, color, religion, ethnicity, and national origin only.


Did not include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability status.


Only applied if the victim of a crime is engaged in during one of six federally protected activities, like voting or an involvement with inter-state commerce.


The ADL reported (as of 2001-SEP-21) that:

Seven states were without hate crime laws (Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, New Mexico,  South Carolina, and Wyoming) 7


Twenty states had laws that do not include sexual orientation as a protected group (AL, AR, CO, GA, ID, MD, MI, MS, MO, MT, NC, ND, oh, ok, pa,  SD, TX, UT, VA, WV) 8


Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia had laws that do protect people on the basis of their sexual orientation. (AZ, CA, CT, DC, DE, FL, IL, IA, KY, LA, ME, MA, MN, ne, nv, nh, nj, NY, OR, RI, TN, VT, WA, WI) 8


On 2000-JUL-4, Kentucky placed a hate crime law on their books which protects persons of all sexual orientations.


The ADL regularly updates a chart of "State hate crime statutory provisions." As of 2008-AUG, they show:

Only five states with minimal or no hate crime law: (AR, GA, IN, SC, WY).


31 states with laws criminalizing violence based on victims' sexual orientation: (AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, HI, IL, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MN, MO, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, TN, TX, VT, WA, WI.


22 states with laws protecting religious worship: (AR, CA, DC, FL, ID, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, NV, NM, NY, NC, OK, RI, SC, SD, TN, VA, WV.


13 states with laws criminalizing violence based on victims' age ( CA, DC, FL, IA, HI, KS, LA, ME, MN, NE, NM, NY, VT).


12 states with laws criminalizing violence based on victims' gender identity (CA, CO, CT, DC, HI, MD, MN, MO, NJ, NM, OR, VT).


5 states with hate laws criminalizing violence based on political affiliation (CA, DC, IA, LA, WV).


The 2009 federal hate crimes law, signed into law on 2009-OCT-28:

Covers race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability.


Applies across a wide range of hate crimes of violence.


Does not include hate speech which is legal in the U.S. and protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Forward," FBI hate-crime report for 2002, at:
  2. "Hate Crime definition," FBI, at:
  3. "Questions and Answers: What's wrong with thought crimes ('hate crimes') laws, Family Research Council, 2007-APR, at: This is a PDF file.
  4. "Senate to consider hate-crimes measure," Baptist Press, at:
  5. Cited in: "Hate Crimes Laws: Making thoughts a crime," Concerned Women for America," at: 
  6. "Hate motivated crime and violence: Information for schools, communities, & families," National Education Association at:
  7. "1999 Hate crimes laws: Map of state statutes," Anti-Defamation League, at:
  8. "1999 Hate crimes laws: State hate crimes statutory provisions," Anti-Defamation League, at:
  9. "Anti-Defamation League state hate crime statutory provisions," 2008-AUG, at:

Copyright © 1999 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-JUN-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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