For all the debate that takes place around what it really means to have freedom of religion, one thing is generally agreed: people from all walks of life should be able to go to church without worrying they’ll be shot.
Consequently, attorneys are rightly calling it “reprehensible” that 22-year-old Ronald Wyatt, by his own admission, uttered threats on Facebook to discourage another family from attending his church in Taylor, Michigan, specifically because they’re Black.
Two months ago, Wyatt confessed, he took to Facebook to send a message to a woman known in court documents only as T.P. The message he wrote is hard to interpret as anything other than a threat:
See you at church on Wednesday night with my AK to put you and your n***** family down, b**** [asterisks not in original]
Wyatt has further admitted that he expected and intended for T.P. to see the message as a threat. He told the courts that he hoped to discourage her and her family from attending. He also confessed to his racist motivations.
The story becomes even more gloomy when you consider how the principal players knew each other. An affidavit sworn to the FBI identifies T.P. as a community helper who used to bring Wyatt meals at home while he was grieving the death of his father.
During the course of the investigation, Wyatt’s mother explained to authorities that the young man’s anger at his church community blossomed after church members rejected him for using drugs. He also told authorities that he’s living with bipolar disorder.
But hundreds of thousands of Americans live with bipolar and other difficult-to-manage mental-health disorders, and they somehow get by without making racially-motivated death threats. Most of them, anyway.
For that reason and many others, says U.S. Attorney Matthew Schnieder, Wyatt’s behavior is “truly reprehensible.” And the impact on T.P.’s religious freedom is one of the most egregious factors:
Although the First Amendment protects free speech, it doesn’t give anyone the right to obstruct the free exercise of religious beliefs by threatening violence or bodily harm. Prosecuting those who violate the civil rights of Michigan citizens is some of the most important work we do. This plea today is the first step towards justice for this innocent victim.
At least Wyatt has confessed, sparing T.P. and her family the ordeal of making their case in an adversarial (and often also racist) court system. His sentencing will be suspended for a year as a condition of his plea deal, and the maximum amount of jail time he faces amounts to an additional year.
Speaking from the FBI’s Detroit Field Office, Special Agent in Charge Steven M. D’Antuono says he hopes the sentence can “provide a measure of justice for the victim, her family, and her community,” rightly acknowledging the damage done by that kind of violent racial hatred, even if it never evolves from words into actions.
Hopefully this experience helps Wyatt understand the consequences of his actions and return to his community a better man.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)