WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Senate has approved military-related legislation that includes language expanding hate crimes protections to include homosexuals and transgendered people, sending the bill to a House-Senate conference committee.
The Senate voted 87-7 for a Department of Defense authorization bill that includes an amendment that 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.
Senators’ July 23 passage of the measure means select members of both chambers of Congress will meet in a conference committee to resolve differences between the defense authorization bills. The House of Representatives approved its version of the authorization legislation June 25 without hate crimes language. The House, however, passed a stand-alone hate crimes bill — the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, H.R. 1913 — with a 249-175 vote in late April.
President Obama has expressed support for expanding hate crimes law to include homosexuals, bisexuals and transgendered people. The only thing in a final defense authorization bill that may prevent Obama from signing it into law could be inclusion of additional funds for the F-22 fighter jet. The president threatened to veto the legislation if it authorized money for such a purpose. The Senate bill does not permit funding for the F-22, but the House measure does. Because the plane’s production involves subcontractors in a reported 44 states, it has been wildly popular in both chambers.
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-related legislation.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) 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.
Before attaching the hate crimes measure to the defense bill July 16, the Senate approved in a 78-13 roll call an amendment by Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., intended to address at least some of those concerns. Brownback’s amendment says the free exercise of religion and other First Amendment rights 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 hate crimes measure “is still inappropriate legislation,” in spite of the “protection that Senator Brownback gained for people of faith,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president of public policy, after the Brownback amendment’s approval.
“The amendment protects the pastor as long as his speech or other action was not ‘intended’ to lead to an act of violence,” Duke said. “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.”
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.
Voting against the Senate bill were Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim Demint (S.C.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Russ Feingold (Wis.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and David Vitter (La.). Not voting were Sens. Bob Bennett (Utah), Robert Byrd (W.Va.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Barbara Mikulski (Md.) and John Rockefeller (W.Va.).
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. For a Q&A about the hate crimes bill’s impact on religious freedom click here.