WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress is close to passing a “hate crimes” bill that would extend special federal protections to homosexuals, transsexuals, women and the disabled.
The legislation, stalled for the summer, has drawn opposition from groups who describe it as a federal overreach or fear it could lead to restrictions on free speech.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is the chief sponsor of the Matthew Shepard Act, named after a 21-year-old Wyoming man beaten to death in 1998 because of his homosexuality. The bill would broaden federal “hate crimes” laws, which currently cover violent crimes motivated by race, religion and national origin. Kennedy’s bill would expand the federal definition of “hate crimes” to include violent crimes motivated by gender, disability, sexual orientation or “gender identity.”
While most assaults, robberies, murders or kidnappings are state offenses, “hate crimes” would be federal offenses under Kennedy’s bill.
The bill would direct federal tax dollars to state and local government to assist in the prosecution of “hate crimes.”
Some fear this bill would be a first step towards laws prohibiting “hate speech,” such as those in Europe and Canada. Kennedy’s bill is explicitly limited to acts of violence, but that hasn’t kept some Christian organizations from warning of a “slippery slope” toward speech codes.
The measure passed the House of Representatives as a stand-alone bill on May 3 by a 237-180 margin. Kennedy inserted the measure into an amendment to a defense-spending bill (non-germane amendments are very common in the Senate), but that spending bill was delayed by debates over Iraq.
Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps indicated her boss would resume his push for this legislation after the August recess.
“We’re always looking for vehicles for this important legislation,” Capps said.
While the bill is stalled for now, Capps expressed confidence they would pass it into law, pointing out that three years ago, under Republican control, the Senate passed the measure 65-33, again attached to a defense-funding bill.
Opponents in Congress raise two main objections to the bill: It needlessly extends federal power into matters properly handled by the state, and it violates the Constitution’s equal protection guarantees.
The bill claims that “hate crimes” are under the jurisdiction of Congress because such crimes “substantially affect interstate commerce in many ways.”
One House Republican aide called this justification “very thin.”Free Speech Issue
Another central objection is that the bill is discriminatory: It appears to create special protected classes of citizens, whose attackers are prosecuted more aggressively and more harshly than other criminals.
“This bill divides people by class and color,” argued one House Republican staffer.
Some groups oppose the bill, comparing it to laws in Europe and Canada outlawing “hate speech.” Jim Jenkins, senior legal counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund calls the bill “a Trojan horse,” and a “sneaky way to suppress free speech.” Jenkins argues that in “almost every place that hate crimes legislation has been passed, hate speech legislation has followed.”
After the bill passed the House in May, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins issued a statement to that effect: “In some jurisdictions that have adopted similar laws, ‘hate crimes’ have been defined to include not just physical acts of violence but merely verbal ones, as well. When ‘thought crimes’ laws are interpreted this way, they pose a serious threat to freedom of speech and religious liberty.”
Capps, Kennedy’s spokeswoman, said that the bill “doesn’t at all impact speech.”
The bill defines a hate crime as “a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation of any person,” and the federal penalties only cover those who “willfully cause bodily harm” — language that appears not to cover speech or expression.
Many European countries and Canada have laws prohibiting “hate speech,” which often include Christian teaching that homosexual behavior is disordered and immoral. In Sweden, for example, a preacher was convicted of hate speech after one of his sermons was published in a local newspaper. Spanish Cardinal Antonio Maria Ruoco has been sued for slander after his criticism of homosexual “marriage.”
Helen Osmond, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “At this point we do not” have a position on the bill.
Considering that the bill has passed the House this Congress and garnered a large majority in a Republican-dominated Congress three years ago, the measure likely will pass Congress this year, either as a rider on a larger bill or as a stand-alone measure.
Tim Carney writes from