Christian leaders oppose bill on hate
Group says measure attacks freedoms of speech and religion
Published May 4, 2007
By Karoun Demirjian
WASHINGTON // A hate crimes bill passed by the House yesterday, 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. President Bush has said he might 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."
The bill's supporters say that such an assertion is nonsense, and that a sermon could never be considered an inducement to violence unless it explicitly advocated it.
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.
In the Maryland delegation, Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest joined Democratic Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn in voting for the bill. Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett voted against it.
Hoyer, House majority leader, said before the vote that the bill was necessary "because brutal hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and identity or disability not only injure individual victims, but also terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric."
Opponents argue that the bill is 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?"