WASHINGTON — A hate crimes bill passed Thursday by the House, extending coverage to people victimized because of sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, is attracting opposition from an unusual coalition of Christian leaders.
Proponents say the bill—similar to one the Senate is expected to pass in the next few weeks—is a moral imperative. But some Christians are depicting it as a "thought crimes" bill attacking 1st Amendment freedoms of speech and religion. A coalition of evangelical, fundamentalist and black religious leaders is mounting a furious assault on the bill, airing television ads and mobilizing members to stop its progress. And President Bush has said he may veto the measure.
If the bill, approved 237-180, were to become law, they say, a pastor could be held liable for giving a sermon against homosexuality if a listener later attacked a gay individual.
"This legislation strikes at the heart of free speech and freedom of religious expression," said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition. "Statements critical of sexual orientation or gender identity can be prosecuted if those statements were part of the motivation of a person committing a crime against a homosexual or cross-dresser…. Pastors’ sermons can be considered hate speech under this bill."
The bill’s supporters say this is nonsense, and that a sermon could never be considered an inducement to violence unless it explicitly advocated it.
"The only people who ought to fear this bill are people who would say to another human being, ‘You ought to do violence against someone else,’ " said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who earlier added an amendment to the bill reaffirming the principles of the 1st Amendment. "I don’t know of any man of God who would take to any pulpit and advocate that."
In addition to broadening the federal definition of a hate crime victim, the law provides funds so that local authorities can request federal assistance for prosecutions in the aftermath of a hate crime.
"We have to take action to make sure that a crime of one group against another can be quickly handled so it doesn’t become a huge national problem," said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a major co-sponsor of the bill along with House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), and one of several moderate Republicans to join with Democrats in supporting its passage.
For supporters of the bill, the measure is a natural extension of the march of civil rights, as voiced by supporters like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
"It is too recent that lynching was rationalized in our country," he said. "It is too present in today’s society that some across the sea and, yes, some here, rationalize violence because of membership in another religion. This is an important vote of conscience. A statement of what America is."
But opponents argue that the law is actually un-American, in that it effectively creates a two-tiered justice system. In defining only certain groups as legal victims of hate, many argued, the law’s supporters were leaving out other categories of people deserving of protection, such as members of the military, pregnant women and the elderly. An amendment to add these groups to the hate crimes law failed in the House shortly before the bill’s passage.
"All violent crime is tied to hate in some way," said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, another conservative group opposing the measure. "The Virginia Tech shooter said in his diatribe that he hated rich kids. Well, rich kids aren’t protected in this hate crime bill. If we’re going to start choosing categories of people for additional penalties when they’re victimized, where does the list end?"
But for some lawmakers, such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who presided over Thursday’s vote and is the only openly gay man in the House, there is a clear distinction.
"You’re fighting this pattern of people being assaulted because of prejudice," he said. "An assault on someone because of who he or she is because of race, gender or sexual orientation, it disturbs a whole class of people."
Concern for the ripple effect that hate crimes engender has been a factor in the passage of some of the 45 state laws against hate crimes, though not all protect against crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender and disability. But on the federal level, conservatives such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) argued that violent crimes are violent no matter the victim, making the House-passed bill unnecessary.
"There are already laws to protect every man, woman and child from violent acts," he said, pointing out that in all violent crime cases assailants are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. "The laws are working. What this is trying to do is protect a class from any speech."
Just hours before the vote, the White House suggested the president was considering a veto along the same rationale, setting up yet another potential veto showdown between Bush and the Democratic-led Congress. The margin of passage in the House would not be enough to override a veto.
Notwithstanding critiques of their efficacy, federal laws against certain categories of hate crimes have been on the books since 1969, and now cover cases where people or property are targeted on grounds of race, religion, color or national origin. The House measure would add sexual orientation, gender and gender identity and disability to the list. It also budgets $10 million over the next two years to supplement local authorities in the prosecution of hate crimes, and allows federal officials to participate in investigations.
The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, argued that the availability of federal resources and support would have helped in investigating past cases, such as that of Nebraska transgendered rape victim Brandon Teena—depicted in the film "Boys Don’t Cry"—who was murdered in 1993 after local law enforcement officials refused to arrest the men who committed a rape against Teena. According to FBI statistics, there have been more than 100,000 hate crime incidents nationally since 1991.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and named after another well-known hate crime victim, Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student tied to a fence and beaten to death in 1998, is expected to come up for a vote in the next few weeks.