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Religious Vandalism as Hate Crimes

What some delinquents consider minor vandalism, others see as attacks on their beliefs, and their personal identity. At least three Massachusetts places of worship have been vandalized in recent months. In some of these incidents, the initial reaction favors seeking hate crime charges against the assailants. While after the perpetrators are caught, they are charged with only vandalism. The Governor's Task Force on Hate Crimes was given permanent status in 1998, but the treatment of what are considered hate crimes continues to evolve. 

In Haverhill, over the holiday season, two incidents shocked the community, in what some are calling religious hate crimes. The Jesus figure from the nativity scene at the Sacred Hearts Church was taken, and replaced with a real pig's head. Detective Robert Pistone said their investigation indicated a prejudice towards religion, to treat the action as a hate crime. Days later, a woman was arrested and charged with church desecration, writing "666" multiple times on the exterior of another area church. She was later connected to the pig's head incident, but instead was ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Two Northampton teenage girls accused of spray painted anti-Semitic and racially charged graffiti, as well as swastikas, were charged with vandalism, rather than hate crimes or civil rights violations. According to the District Attorney of the Northwestern District, because the girls had not targeted any specific person or people, the act did not amount to a hate crime. The girls apparently admitted to the crime, because they wanted to do something shocking.

Of course, it is not only religious groups who are claiming crimes against them were based on bias, racial hate crimes have also affected the state's residents. In 2013, a Chicopee man was charged with a hate crime after assaulting a hispanic woman and calling out ethnic epithets. It appeared to be an unremarkable brawl between a few young people outside a bar, but by bringing in words on the woman's ethnicity, the charge was elevated to a hate crime, which carries harsh penalties of up to 2 ½ years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

That same year, in a bizarre turn of events, the community of Lunenburg rallied around a high school football player whose house was marked with hateful racial graffiti. The biracial boys parents said their son was being targeted by other members of the football team because of his race. They reported the graffiti sprayed on their house, using the N-word. The town came together to support the boy, but as the investigation continued, it turns out the boy's own mother became the prime suspect. Eventually, the DA dropped the case citing not enough evidence to charge the mother.

The impact of crimes viewed as hate crimes can be felt by both victims and perpetrators long after the events took place. As Mark Wahlberg has sought to be pardoned for the racially charged attacks of his youth, many have spoken out against his request being granted because they consider the attacks a hate crime. Former Massachusetts assistant attorney general Judith Beals has said that while she believes in forgiveness and reconciliation, Wahlberg should be denied a pardon because he has not acknowledged the racial element of his attacks on two Vietnamese men.

State law penalizes certain criminal conduct motivated by a bias against a person's race, color, religion, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability. It is considered a civil rights issue, punishable by both criminal and civil penalties, including civil injunctions.

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