Does a Crime in a Place of Worship Deserve a Harsher Penalty?

April 2, 2014

A bill currently under consideration in New York State would increase criminal penalties for crimes committed in “a place of religious worship,” as incorporated under state law. Criminal penalties would also be increased for cemeteries or other places of burial. 

Bill S2368 is sponsored by Senator Jeffrey D. Klein, a Democrat from the Bronx. While it sounds nice on its face, especially for members of religious institutions who might suffer from disproportionate and discriminatory targeting in the form of criminal activity, the bill does not provide equal protection under the law. It is, in fact, discriminatory itself.

press release from January 2012 explains Senator Klein’s motivations for introducing the bill. The release describes a crime spree where a Catholic church, Greek Orthodox church, and synagogue all suffered robbery and property damage. 

I hesitated to write about this, because I absolutely have a problem with crimes targeting houses of worship. In fact, I agree with Senator Klein that “a crime against a religious institution is a crime against a community at large.” And it is critical that communities stand against violence and crime against places of worship.

However, not every citizen of New York is a member of a religious institution, incorporated or not. In fact, many citizens are members of local secular groups (like CFI–NYC and CFI–Western New York), and their communities would be harmed by robbery, property damage, and vandalism just as much as places of worship.

Are these communities not entitled to equal protection under the law?

Furthermore, New York State already provides special protection for hate crimes—including those motivated by race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practice, age, disability, or sexual orientation. Unlike the proposed law, hate crime laws require harsher punishment based on the intent behind the crime. Senator Klein’s bill requires harsher punishment based on location alone. It effectively privileges places of worship, as defined by state law, above other places.

Rather than creating a hierarchical system of harsher penalties in certain locations and not others, the NY state legislature should drop this bill. Crimes against individuals and community groups are always harmful—and should not be punished more harshly depending on the location where they take place.