WASHINGTON --- The U.S. Senate passed legislation July 16 to expand hate crimes protections to include homosexuals and transgendered people.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act gained approval as an amendment to a Department of Defense authorization bill, which is expected to be voted on the week of July 20-24. The amendment would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the current categories -- such as religion and national origin -- protected from hate crimes. "Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgendered status, takes in transsexuals and cross-dressers.
The Senate voted 63-28 to invoke cloture, or stop debate, in order to bring the hate crimes amendment up for passage. A cloture effort requires 60 votes to be successful. The amendment then was agreed to by unanimous consent.
The House of Representatives passed a similar measure -- the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, H.R. 1913 -- with a 249-175 vote in late April.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and others oppose such efforts to expand hate crimes protection based not only on their inclusion of categories defined by sexual behavior or identity but also concerns about the potential impact on religious freedom.
They fear the measure, combined with existing law, could expose to prosecution Christians and others who proclaim the Bible's teaching that homosexual behavior and other sexual relations outside marriage are sinful. For example, if a person commits a violent act based on a victim's "sexual orientation" after hearing biblical teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, the preacher or teacher could be open to a charge of inducing the person to commit the crime, some foes say.
The Senate approved in a 78-13 roll call before the cloture vote an amendment by Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., intended to protect the free exercise of religion and other First Amendment rights. Brownback's amendment says such freedoms are not to be infringed on under the hate crimes measure as long as their use is not intended to plan, prepare for or incite physical violence.
"The Brownback amendment offers some needed protections for people of faith who express their faith convictions about homosexuality and certain other aberrant sexual behaviors," said Barrett Duke, the ERLC's vice president for public policy and research. "The amendment protects the pastor as long as his speech or other action was not 'intended' to lead to an act of violence. However, it does not protect a pastor from government scrutiny if a member of his congregation engages in an act of violence against someone in one of these protected groups after he has heard a negative statement from the pastor about the group. So, anyone who speaks against homosexuality or other aberrant sexual behaviors may be presumed guilty of inciting violence and be forced to prove his innocence.
"In addition, the Brownback amendment doesn't resolve other inherent problems in the bill," Duke said. "The bill still elevates homosexuality and other aberrant sexual behaviors to a specially protected class, and it still creates an opportunity for the prosecution of thought. Consequently, while we appreciate the protection that Senator Brownback gained for people of faith, the hate crimes bill is still inappropriate legislation and should be defeated."
Peter Sprigg, the Family Research Council's vice president for policy, welcomed the Brownback amendment but told Baptist Press that "the real threat to religious liberty may not come so much from the specific application of this bill but what may follow it. This may start us on a slippery slope to more restrictions. My concern is that just like domestic partnerships have paved the way for same-sex marriage, a law against hate crimes as acts of violence may pave the way for laws against hate speech.
"You still have a problem of a lack of equal protection," Sprigg said of the bill even with the Brownback amendment. "Some victims of violent crime are being granted more rights than other victims of violent crime. Even if in the end no one is prosecuted simply for speaking against homosexual conduct, everyone who disapproves of homosexuality is stigmatized as being guilty of hatred."
The amendment also is unclear in defining who would fit the categories of "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," ERLC President Richard Land said in a July 16 letter urging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to oppose the legislation. "While the American Psychiatric Association lists roughly 30 sexual orientations, including pedophilia, the term 'sexual orientation' is unspecified in the bill, and 'gender identity' is only loosely defined," Land wrote.
The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest homosexual political organization, applauded the Senate's action on the bill.
All 28 votes against cloture on the amendment came from Republicans, including McConnell.
President Obama has expressed support for expanding hate crimes law to include homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people.
The Senate measure says a person commits a hate crime when he "willfully causes bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability of any person."
The penalty for a hate crime could be as much as 10 years in prison or, in some cases, up to a life sentence.
The legislation would authorize the U.S. attorney general to provide assistance to state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The Senate approved similar hate crimes language in 2007 as part of the defense authorization measure, but it was removed from the final bill when it became clear the House would not pass it as part of the military measure.