The US House Judiciary Committee is debating hate crimes legislation that seeks to add homosexual and transgender people to a list of specially protected categories of people under federal law.
HR 1913, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Act of 2009 , would add sexual orientation, gender and gender identity to a list of federally protected classes that already include race, religion, color, or national
During the debates, Republican lawmakers attempted to include members of the military, seniors, unborn babies and pregnant women in the measure but Democrats rejected the proposed amendments.
Rep. Steve King sought to change the name of the legislation to Local Law Enforcement Thought Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. This hate crimes bill is actually a bill to control our thoughts, said King, while citing George Orwell's
1984 : The party is not interested in the overt act, the thought is all we care about.
John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, said the legislation is riddled with problems. The problem, which few want to acknowledge for fear of being labeled politically incorrect, or worse
homophobic, is that in order to crack down on hateful behavior, hateful thoughts and expression must also be targeted-which runs diametrically counter to the First Amendment's protections for free speech and expression.
Conservative groups say that the legislation would violate the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens, by granting special protections to some victims and not to others.
The National Religious Broadcasters Friday (NRB) praised passage of a religious speech-related amendment to hate crimes legislation, while the ACLU said the overall bill still lacked sufficient First Amendment protections.
The religious amendment was adopted by a vote of 78 to 13 after which the underlying hate crimes bill was approved by a voice vote. The bill would raise to a federal offense certain crimes that could be tied to race, color, national origin,
religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
NRB has opposed the hate crimes bill because it fears protected religious speech--on abortion or homosexuality, for example--could be subject to prosecution. ACLU also argues the bill threatens speech.
The amendment, which was introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, essentially clarifies that speech from the pulpit, electronic or otherwise, remain protected unless its intent was to cause violence.
The amendment says that nothing shall be construed or applied in a manner that infringes the rights under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or substantially burdens any exercise of religion (regardless of whether
compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), speech, expression, association, if such exercise of religion was not intended to 1) plan or prepare for an act of physical violence or 2) incite an imminent act of physical violence
The House hate crimes bill, which has no amendment on religious speech, has already passed, while the Senate version that passed this week is an amendment on the defense authorization bill. That bill is must-pass legislation, but it has not
passed yet, and when it does it will have to go to conference committee, where the hate crimes portion must be reconciled with the House version.
A long-debated bill to broaden US federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gays has been approved by the Democratic-controlled House in what would be the first major expansion of the law in more than 40 years.
The measure, which is expected to go before the Senate within days, had faced a veto threat from President George W. Bush, but enjoys President Obama's support.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: As the president said back in April, the hate-crimes bill takes on an important civil rights issue to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance, while also protecting our freedom of
speech and association, he said.
The measure passed by a vote of 281 to 146.
The hate-crime legislation would expand the law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity. Existing federal law defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on religion,
race, national origin or color.
The measure also would give federal authorities more leeway to help state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. It also makes grants available to states and communities to combat hate crimes committed by
juveniles and to train law enforcement officers in investigating, prosecuting and preventing hate crimes.
The bill also creates a new federal crime for attacking members of the military because of their service.
A number of Republicans assailed the measure as thought crimes legislation, contending that it could lead to the prosecution of a pastor delivering sermons against homosexuality if one of his church members committed a hate crime. They
have hinted at a constitutional challenge.
Congress should protect all Americans equally and not provide special protections to a few politically favored groups, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a statement. It violates the principle of equal
justice under the law and also threatens to infringe on the free speech rights of the American people.
The bill's supporters, however, say that they added language to the measure to protect freedom of religious expression.