A bill proposed by California State Assembly Member Ash Kalra could serve to weed out state law enforcement personnel who hold religious or conservative views. SB 655 is ostensibly purposed to deal with a reported increase in police gangs and police officer membership in white supremacist organizations, but conservative groups are warning that the vague, generalized language is an invitation to violate the First Amendment rights of all officers.

According to the bill’s fact sheet, the California Law Enforcement Accountability Reform Act (CLEAR Act),  if enacted, “would require screening for official membership in a hate group, participation in hate group activities, or other public expressions of hate be included in a background check upon hiring and would trigger an investigation that if sustained, could result in disqualification from being a peace officer. Additionally, if a complaint alleging such conduct is filed against a peace officer, this would also create grounds for an investigation, and if sustained, could lead to termination.”

The bill’s definition of “public expression of hate” includes “any explicit expression, either on duty or off duty and while identifying oneself as, or reasonably identifiable by others as, a peace officer, in a public forum, on social media including in a private discussion forum, in writing, or in speech, as advocating or supporting the denial of constitutional rights of, the genocide of, or violence towards, any group of persons based upon race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

The bill also states that membership in a “hate group” is grounds for discipline or removal.

The problem, according to conservative groups concerned about the bill, is the vague and overbroad definition of “hate.” According to Matthew McReynolds, senior staff attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, the bill as written allows government to engage in blatant viewpoint discrimination. He writes:

“The breadth of this definition raises numerous questions:

  • Are the many conservative organizations pejoratively labeled ‘hate groups’ by the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center—because they oppose radical LGBTQ ideology—actual ‘hate groups’ within the meaning of this legislation?
  • Is the Catholic Church a ‘hate group’ because it advocates for the sanctity of life and thereby rejects the constitutional rights of women to obtain abortion?
  • Are the thousands of churches in California which voiced support for Proposition 8, the traditional definition of marriage, ‘hate groups’ because they opposed LGBTQ constitutional rights to marry?
  • Are the careers of Muslim officers in jeopardy if the mosque where they offer prayers has ever spoken out against homosexuality or gender equality?
  • Is the Republican Party a ‘hate group’ because it does not endorse gender identity as a constitutional right?”

The California Family Council (CFC), a Focus on the Family-affiliated public policy organization in The Golden State, is also concerned. Greg Burt, Director of Capitol Engagement with CFC, criticized the wide-ranging scope of the bill on the organization’s website.

“A Bay Area assemblyman wants to ban from service police officers and police officer candidates who are members of hate groups or have used hate speech in the past, even in ‘a private discussion forum’ online.  Yet the definition of a ‘hate group’ and ‘hate speech’ used by Assemblyman Ash Kalra’s (D – San Jose) new bill, AB 655, is incredibly broad,” he wrote. “Not only does it include armed militia groups and white supremacists promoting ‘domestic terrorism,’ it also includes police officers expressing conservative religious or political views on abortion, marriage, and gender or with membership in a political party or church that does.”

There are approximately 121,000 full-time law enforcement employees working for state or local governments in California.

According to CFC, there will be a hearing on this bill before the Assembly Public Safety Committee on April 6.

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