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Sen. Harry Reid (AP/Photo by Scott Applewhite)

Jeopardizing free speech?

Congress | In a late-night vote, Senate Democrats add an expansive hate-crimes amendment to a key defense-spending bill

WASHINGTON-The Senate passed an expansive federal hate-crimes amendment late Thursday night, extending current federal protections to cover those physically attacked because of their gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

But conservatives opposing the legislation said it infringes on states' rights and free speech protection and could lead to the criminalization of some religious expression that opposes homosexuality.

"The bill could potentially imperil the free speech rights of Christians who choose to speak out against homosexuality-which could even be extended to preaching against it," said a statement from The Christian Coalition of America.

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The law would make it easier for federal prosecutors to get involved in hate-crimes cases and could mean that law enforcement officials, with little guidance, could now be forced to investigate questions about sexual orientation and gender after a crime.

Chuck Baldwin, a syndicated columnist and a former presidential candidate, said the entire hate-crimes discussion is redundant. He told me, "It ascribes a greater penalty because of one's personal thoughts or opinions outside the purpose of justice, instead of penalizing for the crime committed."

In order to avoid Republican opposition, Senate Democrats, after a procedural vote of 63-28, attached the hate-crimes legislation as an amendment to a must-pass defense-spending bill. Five Republicans voted for it while all 28 votes against the measure came from Republicans.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that senators who oppose the hate-crimes amendment now would be faced with a dilemma of choosing between a harmful bill and funding the nation's troops. "I don't think that's fair to any member of this body," he said. "I have asked members not to play games with this Defense Authorization bill by adding non-related amendments."

He added that the measure would provide extra burdens on law enforcement officers: "Our legal system is based on identifying, capturing, and punishing criminals, and not on using the power of government to try to divine biases."

Democrats lauded the bill as an overdue reform to the 1968 hate-crimes legislation passed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The previous hate-crimes law included race, color, religion, or national origin, and federal involvement was limited.

"This bill simply recognizes that there is a difference between assaulting someone to steal his money, or doing so because he is gay or disabled or Latino or Muslim," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

But Focus on the Family warns that the hate-crimes bill will create a new class of crimes. They say it could allow pastors to be prosecuted if they preach against homosexuality and are found to have induced a hate-crime against a self-identified homosexual.

"Gay activists have and will continue to use these kinds of laws to silence Christians who speak publicly about God's design for human sexuality-and make them pay if they stand up for their beliefs," said Ashley Horne, federal issues analyst for Focus on the Family Action.

Republicans may try to weaken the bill with amendments on Monday before the full defense-spending bill gets its final vote. The Senate did pass provisions stating that the bill does not prohibit constitutionally protected speech.

But the hate-crimes measure passed the House in April, and President Obama has supported similar hate-crimes legislation. As a result, the most significant extension of hate-crimes law since 1968 is likely to become law.

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