WASHINGTON — More than a decade ago, Matthew Wayne Shepard, a University of Wyoming student with same-sex attraction, was robbed and tortured, ultimately dying from his injuries. Shepard's grim death in 1998 became a cause célèbre for activists promoting rights for homosexuality.

Now, Shepard's story has returned to the public eye, as the U.S. Senate prepares to debate the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The House has already passed a similar bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and President Obama has vowed to sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

Two years ago, President George W. Bush threatened to veto a similar bill saying, "The administration believes that all violent crimes are unacceptable, regardless of the victims, and should be punished firmly."

While current federal law on "hate crimes" applies to crimes based on race, color, national origin or religion, the proposed changes would expand federal provisions to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The proposed law also provides grants to improve the education and training of local officials to identify, investigate, prosecute and prevent hate crimes; it also expands the type of statistics currently collected by the FBI to better monitor hate crimes.

The House bill passed 249-175 on a party-line vote, and the legislation has provoked a mixed response from religious groups that traditionally defend the fundamental human dignity of all Americans, including those on the margins of society.

While many churches have lobbied for the bill's passage, a vocal minority of Christian leaders and groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention, strongly oppose it. They assert that new provisions unjustly elevate the rights of specific groups over other Americans, threaten religious speech, and needlessly duplicate hate crimes statutes already in place in 45 states.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to issue any statement on the bill. The conference failed to return repeated calls from the Register.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the bill's chief sponsor, believes it "will bring greater protection to our citizens and much-needed resources for state and local law enforcement to fight these vicious crimes. Now is the time to stand up against hate-motivated violence and recognize the shameful damage it is doing to our nation."

Catholic Assessment

Many Christian churches and religious leaders share Kennedy's enthusiasm, and they have registered their support for the new federal provisions on Capitol Hill.

Claretian Missionary Father Richard Estrada, an associate pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Los Angeles, recently joined a group of religious activists who traveled to Washington to lobby for passage of the bill.

"I was there to say, 'It's time to stand up and speak out against hate crimes across the board.' It's wrong, and we as a Catholic institution cannot tolerate this," said Father Estrada.

While conservative Christian leaders and institutions have publicly opposed the bill because they fear it will have a "chilling effect" on religious speech, few Catholic leaders and institutions have registered any clear opinion.

The muted response underscores the ambivalence of Church leaders, who seek to defend the sanctity of life as well as protect their freedom to preach the Gospel.

While a New York Times editorial backing the passage of the federal law aserted that "African-Americans, who make up the largest group of hate-crime victims," followed by "Hispanics, who have been increasing targets of anti-immigrant hatred," would be the biggest "beneficiaries," critics have focused on the legal ramifications of including "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" into hate crime provisions.

Asked to explain the Church's position on the legislation, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said he would defer to the U.S. bishops' conference for guidance. But then he offered a series of statements that provided a kind of framework for Catholic reflection.

"Violence against any group of people simply because they're different is evil. So in an immediate sense, this probably shouldn't worry Catholics," said Archbishop Chaput. "But I do think the legislation should make Christians very alert: This is a clear example of the law being used not merely to require or proscribe certain behaviors, but to 'teach' the special gravity of certain kinds of crime. The law teaches — which, of course, is exactly what pro-lifers have been arguing on the abortion issue for more than 30 years. What it teaches, of course, can be good or bad."

Archbishop Chaput then expressed caution regarding the long-term impact of hate crimes legislation, and he agreed that concerns about the bill's impact on religious speech could not be ruled out.

"All forms of hatred are a serious evil. But 'hate crimes' is a political term with ambiguous content," he said. "It's important for citizens to think carefully about where a specific piece of 'hate crime' legislation will lead before supporting or opposing it."

An Admission

For now, it appears the bishops' conference will stay on the sidelines of this debate. But that hasn't stopped Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights from registering his own alarm.

"The centerpiece of our objection is the chilling effect on religious liberty."

"Pastors will fear to speak about Church teaching on adultery, homosexuality or something else for fear someone might go out and bash somebody," explained Donohue.

Indeed, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, the most outspoken opponent of the House hate crimes bill, has argued that "this well-intentioned legislation would expose religious leaders to prosecution for the actions of others and would send shivers throughout the religious community. It could even lead to their arrest for attempting to induce violence."

Donohue agrees with Gohmert and asks the bishops to rethink their stance on hate crime legislation. "Maybe some of the Catholic elite believe that scenario is far removed, but it's not far removed in the minds of the people promoting this legislation," he said. "They have already determined that this could be actionable, and that's good enough for me."

He cited an April 25, 2007, House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, where Gohmert asked Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., "If a minister preaches that sexual relations outside of marriage of a man and woman is wrong, and somebody within that congregation goes out and does an act of violence, and that person says the minister counseled or induced him through his sermon to commit that act, are you saying under your amendment that in no way could that ever be introduced against the minister?"

"No," responded Davis. While Davis voted for the bill then, he voted against it in 2009.

"Hold Them to Their Word"

Conservative Christian groups point to a slew of court decisions that confirm a broad trend toward downgrading religious liberty, and they believe church groups must stay on the offensive.

"This bill is unjust: Instead of 'equal protection under the law,' it directs the law to treat people differently. It will end up being used to target religious people," said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America.

"We have tracked the international trend, and everywhere that 'hate' regulations are implemented, free speech is inevitably oppressed," argued Craig Parshall, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Religious Broadcasters, in a public statement. "Right now the Federal Communications Commission has before it a petition to launch an investigation against 'hate' on conservative radio."

Thus, Archbishop Chaput concludes his own discussion of hate crimes with this final statement: "Supporters of the legislation insist that it will have no effect on freedom of speech or belief. Good. That's reassuring. Catholic voters should remember and hold them to their word."

Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.