The U.S. Senate sent a landmark bill Tuesday to President Obama that includes hate-crimes protections for homosexuals which critics say will infringe on the religious liberty of pastors and other faith leaders.
It is the biggest federal legislative victory to date for homosexual organizations.
In a 68-29 vote, senators passed 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the hate crimes measure that adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," as well as disability, to the current categories -- such as race, religion and gender -- protected from hate crimes. The House of Representatives voted 281-146 on Oct. 8 for the same defense legislation, which was used as a vehicle for the hate-crimes measure though it is not directly related to the controversial provision. President Obama has said he would sign the bill.
"Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgendered status, takes in transsexuals and cross-dressers.
Obama has promised to sign it into law despite his opposition to funding in the bill for a specific fighter jet engine. He made his pledge at an Oct. 10 dinner sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, the country's leading homosexual organization.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R.-S.C., an opponent of the hate crimes proposal, argued during floor debate that passage of the bill would lead to the policing of thoughts and words. He pointed to a case in Canada in which a youth pastor, Stephen Boissoin, was fined $7,000 by the Alberta Human Rights Commission for writing a letter to the local newspaper critical of homosexuality. The ruling is being appealed. Boissoin wrote, in part, "From kindergarten class on, our children, your grandchildren are being strategically targeted, psychologically abused and brainwashed by homosexual and pro-homosexual educators. Your children are being warped into believing that same-sex families are acceptable; that kissing men is appropriate."
Said DeMint, "Canadians right now live under this kind of regime, where so-called human rights commissions operating outside the normal legal process prosecute citizens for espousing opinions the commissioners disagree with. Today in the United States only actions are crimes. If we pass this conference report, opinions will become crimes. What is to stop us from following the lead of the European countries and American college campuses where certain speech is criminalized?
"Can priests, pastors and rabbis be sure their preaching will not be prosecuted if it says certain things are right and wrong?"
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and others oppose efforts to expand hate-crimes protections based not only on their inclusion of categories defined by sexual behavior or identity but also because of 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 bill included language designed to protect freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, but some religious liberties organizations do not consider the protections adequate.
The House voted 249-175 in April for hate-crimes expansion as a stand-alone bill. The Senate approved similar hate-crimes language as part of the defense authorization bill in July. The different versions of the defense legislation went to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers to work out a compromise. That committee reported the bill out with the hate-crimes language included.
Under the measure, people convicted of a hate crime would be subject to more prison time and penalties than people who commit a crime that falls outside the class of hate crimes.
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.
According to the hate-crimes language in the bill, it "applies to violent acts motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of a victim."
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, and Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press. For a Q&A about hate crimes and religious liberty, visit http://bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=30910