WASHINGTON-More expansive hate-crimes legislation is on the verge of becoming law, and that has some Christians worried.
The House passed a $680 billion defense spending bill by a 281-146 vote Thursday, with the hate-crimes legislation slipped in. The Senate now just has to give its nod for the bill to become law-the upper chamber already passed a nearly identical bill with the hate-crimes addendum. (See "Jeopardizing free speech?" July 17, 2009.) President Obama supports the hate-crimes measure.
Some Christians have expressed concern about the hate-crimes bill, which extends the definition of a hate crime to include crime based on gender or sexual identity. Under current hate-crime laws, certain groups can find additional federal protection from violence based on race, religion, and disability, increasing penalties for perpetrators. The question is whether religious leaders could be prosecuted for hate crimes based on their speech-like if a pastor condemned homosexuality, then someone in his congregation committed a violent crime against a homosexual.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy's president, Mark Tooley, has concerns about the effects of the law on religious liberty, and he also rejects the bill's presuppositions.
"The whole hate-crimes perspective seems problematic in that it's trying to criminalize a thought or speech," he told me.
The final clause of the legislation attempts to address that concern, saying the law cannot be used in any way that "infringes on any rights under the first amendment . . . or substantially burdens any exercise of religion." The law still provides dilemmas-speech that may "incite an imminent act of physical violence" is not immune.
A large bloc of Republicans voted against the defense bill, joined by a handful of Democrats, mainly because they wanted the hate-crimes issue to be dealt with separately, not tacked onto a must-pass spending bill. It makes Republicans look bad because it appears as though they are refusing to pass funding for troops.
"I've supported every defense authorization bill that's come before this body, so I rise with a heavy heart to say that I will break that tradition," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in a floor speech. The bill, he said, is "piling liberal social priorities on the backs of soldiers."
"It sets a terrible precedent," said Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., on the floor.
Both parties have attached contentious items to must-pass appropriations bills in the past, but Republicans believed this legislation particularly should have had a separate vote.
Rep. Frank Kratovil, a conservative Democrat in his first year of Congress, said he wasn't very happy with the way the bill was slipped in, even though he supports the hate-crimes legislation itself. He voted for the final defense bill.
When I mentioned that unrelated measures often get attached to spending bills, he responded, with a little resignation: "I'm still getting used to the fact that it happens a lot."
Oddly, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., whose judiciary committee produced the hate-crimes legislation in the first place, voted against the final defense bill. (See "Speech-limiting protection," April 24, 2009.)