WASHINGTON-The effort to include homosexuals as a specially protected group under federal hate crime legislation has prompted Catholic observers to revisit the question.

The latest attempt to extend hate crime sanctions to protect homosexuals law failed this month as a congressional committee stripped any hate crimes legislation from the final version of a spending bill moving through Congress.

A Catholic attorney and professor of human life issues at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio called hate crimes legislation “classic examples of how hard cases make bad law.”

Professor Brian Scarnecchia sounded the warning as lawmakers in Washington sought legislative recourse to a recent string of crimes around the nation which included school, work-place and other mass slayings — some of them apparently motivated by objections to religion, national origins and sexual conduct.

He conceded that people should be “shocked and angry and want to do something” about such hate crimes, but he called on federal lawmakers and other officials to “back off a bit and take another look at what we have here” to determine just how far to go with such legislation at the federal level.

Sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the Hate Crimes Act of 1999 would have added “sexual orientation” to existing federal hate crime laws, and would have greatly expanded federal jurisdiction over hate crimes. It passed a voice vote in the House this summer. An alternative measure by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, offering a state-level solution to the problem, passed in the Senate.

Both measures were rejected by conferees Oct. 18.

Said Scarnecchia, “First of all, every crime that is committed is motivated by hatred or contempt of the common good or the dignity of the human person or the solidarity among people. Even every petty thief displays contempt against those from whom he or she steals and even a huckster shows contempt for those who fall for his sales pitch.”

Then he pointed out that every crime committed already sends a message to an entire community and usually causes people to be more careful to lock their doors or to look over their shoulders more carefully.

“So, there already is a chilling effect that comes with every crime committed,” he added.

The professor quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in noting that “good law shouldn't try to prohibit every vice, nor to promote every virtue. It is enough that it forbid the most grievous vices.”

The proposed inclusion of homosexuality in the hate crime legislation seemed to place many Catholic bishops on the horns of a dilemma.

Asked about the Catholic hierarchy's view on the overall hate crime legislation, a spokeswoman for the U.S.

Catholic bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said, “The idea that people should not hate and discriminate against other people is the position that the Church has taken.

“At the same time, the Church has a very strong opposition to any legislation that condones or promotes a homosexual lifestyle. Therefore, the homosexual aspect makes legislation more of a challenge for the bishops.”

Bishop William Friend of Shreveport, Pa., was one of the prelates who expressed misgivings about the Kennedy bill.

“We ought to teach very strongly on the social issues and ‘Love thy neighbor’ themes,” the bishop told the Register, “and reject very thoroughly racism and every other kind of ‘ism’ that demeans human dignity and human values.”

However, he expressed “great concern that we too often legislate ourselves out of freedom in this country.” “The general pattern seems to be that any issue that comes up today, we are going to have legislation that becomes restrictive in nature and more importantly places government in the role or decision-making relative to guilt or innocence,” Bishop Friend warned.

Thought Police

Rick Hinshaw, of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said:

“Our inclination would be to say that when people commit violent acts against anybody, they should be prosecuted and punished to the full extent of the law because of the harm they've done, regardless of the reason they did the harm.

“But, when you get into adding punishments for the thought that might have been behind the violence, you get into … ‘thought police,’ and start meting out harsher punishment.”

There is no clear evidence that hate crime laws prevent hate crimes, according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama.

However, he conceded that such crimes target more than the individual hurt by the attacked, leading his group to the assumption that “although hate crime laws may not deter such crimes, they do provide a way in which Americans can make a statement that such crimes are intolerable.”

As to hate crimes against homosexuals, Potok said, “It is absolutely required that such crimes be included with hate crimes.”

Father Jack Kelley, retired Marianist professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, said he believes the government has not only the power but “the duty with respect to the common good to define certain crimes as hate crimes. And it also seems to me that it still would be morally correct that when a person is abused because of his lifestyle, the abuse should be listed as a hate crime and dealt with that way.”

In a final plea, professor Scarnecchia said, “Hate crime federal legislation must be resisted while there still is time.”

Asked it he felt such federal legislation would eventually be enacted by the Congress, he said, “Yes, there is a good chance it will be passed unless people of a more farsighted and higher principled conviction make their voices heard.”

Robert Holton writes from Memphis, Tennessee.