WASHINGTON -- Despite objections that it would infringe on the religious liberty of pastors and other faith leaders, the U.S. House Thursday passed a defense bill that includes historic hate crimes protections for homosexuals.
The 2010 defense authorization bill, which passed 281-146, has little if anything to do with hate crimes but is being used as a vehicle to pass hate crimes legislation, which was attached to the defense bill. The defense bill (H.R. 2647) now goes to the Senate, where a similar version already passed earlier this year.
Lobbyists for homosexual organizations for years have supported expanding the hate crimes law but have failed, either because Republicans controlled Congress or the White House, or both. But with Democrats in charge, their prospects appear good. If the bill becomes law, it would be the biggest federal legislative victory for homosexual organizations to date.
President Obama supports hate crimes protections, which, according to the text of the legislation, would give the U.S. attorney general the authority to investigate crimes that are "motivated by prejudice" based on the "actual or perceived ... sexual orientation [or] gender identity" of a person. It also adds disability to the list of protected categories. Persons convicted of a hate crime would be subject to additional prison time and penalties than persons who commit a crime that falls outside the class of hate crimes.
The defense bill passed the House Oct. 8 largely on a party-line vote, with 237 Democrats and 44 Republicans supporting it, and 15 Democrats and 131 Republicans opposing it. An earlier effort to strip hate crimes from the bill failed, 208-216, with 34 Democrats joining 174 Republicans in supporting the attempt.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) sent a letter Wednesday to House Minority Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio, urging him to support efforts to strip hate crimes from the defense bill. The defense bill that passed the House was the result of a House-Senate conference compromise. The conference committee nixed funding for the F-22 fighter plane -- funding opposed by Obama that had initiated a veto threat -- although it left in funding for F-35 engines, also opposed by Obama. It is unclear whether Obama would veto the defense bill in its current state.
Rep. Mike Pence, R.-Ind., said on the floor that he "disdains" discrimination but that passage of the hate crimes legislation would chill religious freedoms.
"Under Section 2 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code today," Pence said, "an individual may be held criminally liable who aids, abets, counsels, commands or induces or procures in the commission of a federal crime. Therefore, to put a fine point on it, any pastor, preacher, priest, rabbi or imam who may give a sermon out of their moral traditions about sexual practices could presumably under this legislation be found to have aided, abetted or induced in the commission of a federal crime. This will have a chilling effect on religious expression from the pulpits, in our temples, in our mosques and in our churches."
The bill, Pence said, criminalizes thought.
"Adding hate crimes provisions in this defense bill puts us on a slippery slope of deeming particular groups as more important than others under our system of justice," he said.
Boehner, speaking at a news conference, called the attachment of hate crimes to the defense bill "an abuse of the legislative process"
"It's an abuse of power by Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate] Majority Leader [Harry] Reid, and it's offensive," Boehner said. "It's offensive to me and a lot of my members. And that's why I will vote and urge my colleagues to vote no.... The idea that we're going to pass a law that's going to add further charges to someone based on what they may have been thinking, I think is wrong."
Pelosi, D.-Calif., though, was undeterred, and was in a celebratory mood at her press conference.
"It's a very exciting day for us here in the capital," she said. "… When I came to Congress 22 years ago, hate crimes legislation was one of the items on my agenda."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist ERLC, asserted in the letter to Boehner that hate crimes legislation would infringe on religious speech.
"Since the bill specifies a hate crime 'is motivated by prejudice based on the actual or perceived' 'sexual orientation' or 'gender identity' of a victim, prosecutors and judges would assume the precarious position of judging thoughts," Land wrote. "This could create a chilling effect on religious speech, connecting innocent expression of religious belief to acts of violence against individuals afforded special protections. The criminalization of religious speech, such as speech against the practice of homosexuality, has already been seen in other countries with similar hate crimes legislation in place."
Land also said hate crimes protections are "unnecessary and unconstitutional" and would "afford special protections to some individuals but deny such protections to others."
"This would turn on its head the 14th Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law," Land wrote.
The hate crimes legislation was named in part for Matthew Shepard, the young homosexual who was beaten and left to die while tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. Although some have argued Shepard's death was the result of a hate crime, the murderers told ABC News in a 2004 interview they instead were motivated by a desire for money to purchase methamphetamine.