WASHINGTON — The White House has promised a Bush veto for a House-passed bill that would involve the federal government in local hate-crime prosecutions.

The bill, which passed the House of Representatives on May 4 in a 237-180 vote, mostly along party lines, would create a new protected status for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

Several activist groups, including the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America, opposed the bill vigorously out of concern that it could ultimately result in discrimination against Christians and others who object to public homosexuality and speak out against the establishment of same-sex “marriage.”

A spokeswoman for House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., dismissed these fears in an interview with the Register.

“I would hope, at this point, that those concerns have been taken care of in the bill,” she said. “The chairman has always been a huge proponent of civil rights. This is part of his civil rights legacy.”

In a veto threat issued hours before the bill passed, White House aides wrote that the bill is “unnecessary and constitutionally questionable.”

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 provides grants to state and local jurisdictions to enforce their hate-crime laws, and creates a new cause for federal legal action against anyone who commits a violent crime for reasons related to the victim’s “race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.” It applies in cases where a defendant causes a victim bodily injury or attempts to do so with the use of fire, firearms or explosives.

Christian organizations have complained that this bill will limit religious freedom, but their argument is broader than this particular bill. While it is unlikely that this bill will result in bishops, priests and pastors being hauled away for preaching against homosexuality, opponents fear that it sets up a slippery slope.

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., said that it takes the first step toward government regulation of attitudes and beliefs.

“The worry here is that we’re on a slippery slope — that a pastor who preaches on homosexuality could ultimately be charged with aiding, abetting or inciting a hate crime,” he said.

Similar Amendment

Pence noted that the amendment he offered in committee — which added a statement protecting the free exercise of religion — was rejected. The committee did, however, accept a similar amendment by Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., protecting “any expressive conduct” and “any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution.”

Opponents are also concerned about the money contained in the bill for grants to local prosecutors that bring hate-crime cases to court — costing the government $20 million over four years, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. In theory, this creates an incentive for local prosecutors and investigators to classify more crimes as “hate-crimes” in order to collect grants and log extra hours.

The biggest change made by this hate-crime bill, should it become law, is that it would treat “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes — essentially as if the practitioners of homosexual or transsexual lifestyles were a separate race, gender or religion.

Hate-crime bills have passed Congress on numerous occasions before. The first such federal bills were designed to prevent the lynching of blacks in states where local authorities refused to prosecute. More recently, in 2000 and 2004, similar bills have passed as riders on the annual Department of Defense spending bills. These have been designed to specially punish offenses against homosexuals, but the current bill is the first passed that also adds “gender identity.”

The new hate-crime bill differs from other versions in two ways. First, the bill applies to many state-level offenses (for example, simple murder). Were this bill to become law, the U.S. Attorney General would have the option to leave an alleged hate-crime offense at the state level, or to bring up the defendant on a separate federal charge of criminal civil rights violation. This carries an added sentence of up to 10 years, or life if the victim dies or is kidnapped or sexually abused.

All that is required to federalize the crime is that a weapon involved cross state lines at some point before or during the offense. “Previous federal hate-crime legislation which has passed has always been attached to a federal crime,” said Pence. “This bill effectively federalizes all hate-crimes.”

The Bush administration also views this as a problem. The veto threat released by the executive office of the White House states that “there has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement.”

The other change is intended to alleviate fears that some defendants might not receive equal treatment in court because of their beliefs, publicly stated or demonstrated in the past. For example, a defendant who has previously spoken or written something against homosexuality or same-sex “marriage,” or attends a church whose teachings discourage deviant behavior, could see his own free speech and exercise of religion used against him in court, should he commit a violent crime.

Effectively, he would be at greater jeopardy than other defendants if he happened to commit a crime whose victim was homosexual. The fear, as Pence put it, is that pastors may curtail their exercise of free speech, “restrained by concerns about potential legal exposure.”

Democrats altered this year’s bill to add a provision excluding defendants’ speech, religious practices and associations as evidence into a hate-crime prosecution — only allowing evidence “specifically related” to the crime itself. Republican aides argued that this language is too broad, potentially opening the door to all kinds of free speech being used against defendants at trial.

The provision also states that “nothing in this section affects the rules of evidence governing impeachment of a witness.” This could lead defendants in hate-crime trials to fear taking the stand, even if they are innocent.

Christopher Anders, legislative counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, disagreed with these fears and stated that the provision excluding certain evidence is sound.

“The ACLU did not support the hate-crimes bill until a few months ago when this evidentiary provision was brought in,” he said. “It’s an extra protection for people’s free speech and association, and it’s pretty much unprecedented.”

Bush on Hate-Crimes

During the 2000 election, when Texas Gov. George W. Bush was attacked for opposing a hate-crime bill in Texas, he noted that such a law would have little effect. He referred specifically to the men convicted in the brutal, racially motivated dragging murder of a black man, James Byrd.

“The three men who murdered James Byrd … they’re going to be put to death,” Bush said in a presidential debate. “It’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death.”

The White House’s veto threat contained similar thinking: “The administration believes that all violent crimes are unacceptable,” reads the statement, “regardless of the victims, and should be punished firmly.”

David Freddoso

is based in Washington, D.C.