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Criminal minds

Politics | House votes to expand hate-crimes law-and put non-hating pastors in jeopardy

Issue: "Is Romney rolling?," May 19, 2007

Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) says a bill passed by the House of Representatives this month has a strange plea for violent criminals: "If you are going to brutalize me, please make it a random, senseless act of violence."

Gohmert says that's the message of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill that expands federal hate-crime law to include violent acts based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. The House passed the bill on May 3, and the Senate is expected to pass similar legislation as early as this month.

The bill represents the first major expansion of federal hate-crime law since Congress first enacted the legislation in 1968. Current law allows federal authorities to investigate and prosecute certain crimes committed based on victims' race, color, religion, or national origin.

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Proponents of the new measure say the law needs new categories-particularly sexual orientation and gender identity- and they point to high-profile incidents such as the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual college student in Wyoming who was beaten to death. The measure would allocate federal resources, including manpower, to investigate and prosecute such violent crimes, and heighten penalties for assailants.

The bill's opponents say all victims deserve equal protection, and that all violent crime should be punished to the full extent of the law, regardless of the assailant's motives. Speaking one day after the Virginia Tech shootings, Gohmert noted that the massacre in Blacksburg, Va., likely wouldn't qualify as a hate crime under the new legislation.

President George W. Bush threatened to veto the bill, calling it "unnecessary and constitutionally questionable," and noting that state and local laws already cover crimes included in the measure. At least 31 states have hate-crime laws covering sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Bush administration also noted that the new bill fails to protect other vulnerable classes, such as senior citizens and military members. Republican representatives introduced several amendments to add military personnel, the elderly, police officers, pregnant women, minor children, and unborn children to the legislation, saying all deserved the same protection. All the amendments failed.

A handful of Republican congressmen expressed another concern: the law's potential effect on religious leaders who speak against homosexuality. While the bill specifically targets violent crime, some argued that religious leaders could be implicated under existing conspiracy laws in aiding or abetting such crimes if assailants cite their teachings as a basis for motive.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) responded by introducing an amendment that said nothing in the act could be construed to prohibit protected free speech. The amendment passed, but Gohmert pressed Davis on whether the amendment would always protect religious speech, and painted this scenario: A minister preaches against homosexuality, and someone in the congregation commits an act of violence and attributes his motive to the pastor's sermon. "Are you saying under your amendment that in no way could that ever be introduced against the minister?" Gohmert asked. Davis conceded: "No."

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) sought to close that gap by introducing an amendment to specifically protect religious freedom and expression. The amendment failed.

Chris Stovall, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said that's revealing. "There's no doubt this bill is a Trojan horse," he told WORLD. While the bill addresses violent crime, Stovall believes it could lay the groundwork for targeting religious speech about homosexuality: "Virtually everywhere hate-crime laws have been passed, prosecutions for speech have shortly followed."

Stovall points to a Swedish minister who was convicted of a hate crime and sentenced to jail time in 2004 for preaching against homosexuality. (The Swedish Supreme Court eventually exonerated the pastor.) "I don't think this is Chicken Little sort of talk," said Stovall.

Stovall added that hate-crime laws are a bad idea no matter what the protected categories, saying the law should criminalize action, not motive or thought. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) agreed, telling fellow lawmakers: "I don't know where we find the constitutional authority to regulate the inner workings of the human mind."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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