NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The U.S. Senate’s June 20 passage of a bill to expand federal hate-crime legislation to include sexual orientation was “outrageous electioneering and politics on the part of those sponsoring and promoting the bill,” the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said.
The bill, supporters say, will combat violence against women, minorities and homosexuals, while opponents say it threatens religious liberties and federalizes criminal procedure.
Richard Land criticized President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for using the 1998 deaths of a black man in Jasper, Texas, and a homosexual student in Wyoming as justification for the bill, which critics say singles out some victims as more important than others.
Clinton met June 19 with the family of James Byrd, a 49-year-old black man who was dragged behind a pickup truck to his death by three white men. Clinton urged the Senate to “stand up with this fine family [and] pass this legislation.”
“Crimes motivated by hate are really fundamentally different and I think should be treated differently under the law,” Clinton said.
Land said the two main perpetrators in the Byrd case were sentenced to death, while their accomplice was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“What do they want to do, execute them twice?” Land asked.
“The reason hate-crimes legislation was originally passed in 1968 was because there were too many state and local authorities who were not prosecuting and punishing race-based crimes, particularly in the South. That is no longer the case,” Land said.
He noted that places like Jasper, once a hotbed of Klu Klux Klan activity, was the problem, but are now part of the solution as evidenced by the jury’s decision in the Byrd case.
Supporters of the bill also cited the death of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old homosexual who died after being beaten into a coma and tied to a fence.
“In the Shepard case, the perpetrator escaped the death penalty because the Shepard family urgently requested that they be given a life sentence and not the death penalty,” Land noted.
“So clearly the system is working and there is no need to try to focus on additional penalties depending on the motivation of the crime. We ought to just convict people of these crimes and punish them swiftly and justly. Why should a person be punished more severely for murdering a person because they don’t like their sexual preference or the color of their skin? They ought to receive the highest penalties available for taking a human life — period.”
The bill, which passed 57-42, marked the second time in as many years that the Senate has approved such legislation. A similar bill passed the Senate by one vote in 1999, but was killed in a Senate-House conference committee in October.
The new bill expands the 1968 hate-crimes law that bans the use of force or threat of force against a person “because of his race, color, religion or national origin.” The bill would add “sexual orientation” (which includes homosexuality), gender and disability to the protected classes. It also would give federal prosecutors the option of pursuing a hate-crime case if local authorities declined to press charges.
The amendment also would remove the six federally protected activities that a person must be participating in before being considered a victim of a hate crime. They currently include: While attending a public school or college; participating in a government activity; applying for a job or working; serving as a juror; traveling or using a facility of interstate commerce; and using public accommodation.
Clinton said the amendment “recognizes that hate crimes are different from other crimes. These crimes affect entire communities and strike at the heart of our American system of values.”
Gore, who prematurely ended a campaign swing through Kentucky to preside over the Senate and be present to cast a tie-breaking vote if needed, said the vote was “a sign of hope for all America.”
Clinton cited FBI statistics that showed nearly 8,000 hate crimes in 1998.
But critics pointed out that a similar number of hate crimes occurred in 1996, comprising only two one-hundredths of 1 percent of the 37 million total crimes committed in the nation that year. In addition, FBI statistics show that hate crimes were less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total violent and property crimes in 1997 — about a dozen incidents per state in a nation of 270 million citizens. Also, in 1997, only three of 18,209 homicides were associated with “sexual orientation.”
Land cited U.S. Department of Justice data showing that 40 percent of hate crimes in 1996 were classified as nonviolent episodes of intimidation.
“Now I guess that includes the one in Wisconsin where a homosexual successfully prosecuted a former homosexual who entered into a conversation with him about homosexuality at a service station while the former homosexual was holding his child in his arms — hardly an intimidating posture. Yet he was convicted of a hate crime, sent to sensitivity training and placed on probation. That kind of nonsense is bad enough at the local level. It will be even worse when and if the federal government is involved.”
Such cases demonstrate how bills like the one passed by the Senate can threaten religious liberty by attempting to thwart Christians’ desire to share their faith, opponents of the bill argued.
“We, as citizens, should be concerned about public policy in our society,” Land said. “This bill is fatally flawed because it elevates certain victims over other victims depending on why the person victimized them. That doesn’t lead to equal justice under the law.”
Despite its passage, the bill still faces an uncertain future. The vote attached the measure as an amendment to a massive defense bill on which more than 100 amendments are pending. Additionally, the House has rejected such approaches to hate crimes in the past.
Conservative Christians also expressed concern over the measure because it contains millions of dollars in funding for public school-based “diversity” programs, which Land said “denigrate religious beliefs which disapprove of homosexuality and intimates that such beliefs lead to hate crimes.”
“It is more tax money to brainwash our children in public schools and to denigrate the religious values of millions of American parents. We should be outraged that our tax money is funding diversity training that denigrates and undercuts the religious convictions that we teach our children in home and church and equates them with hatred,” Land said.
Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, which lobbied against the bill sponsored by Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., said the Clinton administration is using such “diversity” programs to “disparage Christianity.”
“We’re seeing this on a whole host of fronts, whether it’s telling fifth-graders that Baptists and Pentecostals are perpetrators of hate, or ignoring religion as a part of culture,” she told the CNSNews.com Internet news service June 20.
Sheldon cited two government publications as examples: “Healing the Hate,” a government-funded, anti-hate curriculum funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and “Preventing Hate Crime,” a brochure published by the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
Healing the Hate is a multi-week program that includes role-playing activities, discussion questions, readings on hate crimes and tolerance, and vocabulary words. Sheldon criticized it for making children think that Christians — as well as all religion — are related to hate crime through their opposition to homosexuality.
Opponents of the bill also see it as further encroachment by the federal government into the affairs of states.
“This is a constitutional issue, as Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT), stated,” Land said. “This is a wholesale, unconstitutional power grab by the federal government intruding into what should be state and local business.”
Hatch said there is “little evidence that a broad federalization of hate crimes is warranted.” Hatch offered an alternative to the hate-crimes bill that would create a $5 million-a-year fund, administrated by the Justice Department, to help state and local authorities investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., was among senators who said it would further erode state authority in the face of growing federal power. He said it would “federalize” many violent crimes, effectively putting the U.S. government in charge of criminal prosecutions.
“State laws are working and doing a fine job,” Lott said.
Twenty-two states have enacted legislation including “sexual orientation” in hate-crimes laws. Eight states have no hate-crimes law, and 20 states have hate-crimes laws that exclude “sexual orientation.”