A California woman now faces hard time for a federal crime after pleading guilty to a hate-motivated attack against students at the United States’ oldest Catholic school for girls.
Last January, Sonia Tabizada pleaded not guilty to federal charges after threatening violence against students at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in Washington, D.C. In a voicemail message to the school, Tabizada threatened to “f**king kill your kids” unless they reversed position on their alumni magazine’s editorial decision to include same-sex marriage announcements. She even claimed that bombing the school would be “a mission from God” for which she would bear no guilt.
It seems that Tabizada has changed her tune. Last week she pleaded guilty to “intentionally obstructing persons in the enjoyment of their free exercise of religious beliefs,” presumably in exchange for the charges related specifically to transmitting bomb threats.
Even with reduced charges, though, her crime carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison plus three years’ supervised release, and may also include a fine as great as $250,000. It is a devastating sentence that sends a clear message: Religious terrorism, even the threat of it, will not be tolerated.
Too often, “free exercise of religious beliefs” has been used as a cudgel for an evangelical Christian power bloc in the American political landscape to maintain supremacy over those of other religions or no religion. It attacks efforts at inclusion and attempts to create space for discrimination as long as it can be connected to “a sincere religious belief.”
But, contrary to the arguments often made within conservative Christian circles, the decision to accept and embrace members of the LGBTQ community can also be a form of protected religious expression. The decision to focus on the civil rights aspect of this case makes it a solid counter-example against such a misapplication of the concept of religious freedom.
Says FBI Assistant Director Steven M. D’Antuono, who runs the Washington Field Office:
Every citizen and community has the Constitutional right to exercise their own religious beliefs free from fear and discrimination. Defending civil rights is a top priority for the FBI and we will continue to work to protect the civil rights and freedoms granted to all Americans.
In a similar vein, DC attorney Michael R. Sherwin added:
An attack upon the free exercise of any person or group’s religious beliefs is an attack upon the civil rights of every citizen. Today’s guilty plea is part of my office’s commitment to ensuring that all District citizens can safely exercise their religious beliefs and that all of their civil rights are protected.
There’s an important caveat, though: The “hate crime” label applied to Tabizada’s crimes deals specifically and solely with her attacks on a particular form of religious expression. It doesn’t address the homophobic motivation behind her threats. Her crime carries equal weight regardless of what outcome she hoped her threats would bring about — whether it’s the systematic erasure of LGBTQ students or a return to the traditional Latin Mass.
Neither of those outcomes should be forced on anybody by threat of violence, but only one of them singles out a specific group of people for second-class status. We cannot afford to ignore which outcome Tabizada sought.