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Gay rights movement advances as House committee OKs ‘special protections’

WASHINGTON (BP)–A congressional committee voted Thursday to extend hate crimes protections to homosexuals and transgendered individuals in the first step of what supporters hope will be a major victory for the gay rights movement.

The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives forwarded the legislation to the full chamber in a 15-12 vote. The measure adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the current classes — including race, religion and national origin — protected from hate crimes.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, H.R. 1913, appears to have an enhanced chance of enactment in this Congress after having been turned back in previous sessions. The House and Senate both passed similar legislation in 2007. Under threat of a veto from President Bush, the two chambers failed to agree on a final version.

If the bill gains approval in this Congress, President Obama is expected to sign it.

Homosexual activist advocates and their allies — including the ACLU, NAACP and Anti-defamation League — back the measure, but some religious and pro-family organizations oppose it, saying it is unnecessary, would grant protection based on behavior and would threaten religious and free-speech rights. They also warn it would move federal law toward punishing thoughts and beliefs, since the motivation of a person charged with a hate crime would have to be evaluated.

On the day before the committee action, the head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity urged some members of the Judiciary Committee to oppose it.

The bill infringes on the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause “by creating special protections for homosexual and certain other sexual orientations not afforded other groups of people, making everyone else second-class citizens when it comes to protecting against violent acts,” said Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in his April 22 letter.

It also would have a “chilling effect” on speech based on religious belief, Land said. “Because the Bible teaches that homosexual conduct is sin, Christians could be prosecuted for speaking out against such a lifestyle. It is dangerous to connect innocent expression of religious beliefs to violent behavior against someone from a protected class.”

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, decried the committee’s vote, saying, “All violent crimes are hate crimes, and every victim is equally important. All of our citizens deserve equal justice under the law. Do we somehow care less about victims violently assaulted because of robberies or personal disputes than we do about those assaulted because they belong in a federally designated category?”

Joe Solmonese, the head of the country’s leading homosexual activist organization, said after the panel’s vote, “After 10 years, and tens of thousands more victims, this critical legislation combating hate violence is long overdue. We must not miss this opportunity to provide local police and sheriffs’ departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence.”

Solmonese is president of the Human Rights Campaign, which describes itself as “America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.”

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 bill says a hate crime is one “motivated by prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim or is a violation of the State, local, or Tribal hate crime laws.”

“Sexual orientation” includes homosexuality. “Gender identity” is a “person’s innate sense of gender,” which may be different than his sex, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Transgender is an umbrella term for “people who live all or substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their birth sex,” according to HRC. The transgender category includes transsexuals and cross-dressers.

During the committee’s consideration of the bill, more than a dozen amendments from Republican members were defeated, according to Congressional Quarterly.

The penalty for a hate crime could be as much as 10 years in prison or, in some cases, up to a life sentence.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.