By Jacqueline L. Salmon
The rhetoric is hot and heavy around the federal “hate crimes” bill, expected to be re-introduced into Congress within the next few weeks. It would allow federal aid to investigate crimes committed because of sexual orientation or gender identity.
The measure broadens the definition of hate crimes, which already includes crimes motivated by bias based on race, religion and national origin. It passed Congress last year, is expected to pass again, and President Obama has pledged to sign it.
Suffice to say that conservative groups don’t like it. They call it the “thought crimes” bill that will penalize clergy members who preach messages against homosexual activity from the pulpit. Gay-rights activists accuse them of using deceit to scare up support.
Here’s the debate:
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, predicts a “wave of federal prosecution.” In a fund-raising e-mail sent to supporters on Tuesday, he warned that offended gays could accuse a religious broadcaster, a pastor or a Sunday school teacher who expresses the viewpoint that homosexual behavior is morally wrong and unhealthy.
That’s “just a scare tactic to mobilize the grass roots,” counters Becky Bansky, federal legislative director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “When they have to resort to lying, they’re telling you they have no legitimate argument against the legislation.”
Not so, says Jason Lorence, senior attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal firm. “I don’t think it’s preposterous to propose that in the future, hate crimes can be used against pastors.”
So who wins this smackdown?
Let’s turn to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
“I don’t think this legislation would in any way infringe on the freedom of people to state their views about homosexuality,” Haynes says in an e-mail.
The bill, Haynes notes, applies only to violent acts, not speech. It wouldn’t prohibit what the First Amendment protects.
He concedes that an overzealous prosecutor could try using the hate-crimes law to stifle religious speech. But widespread misuse, when you look at the record of prosecutions under existing hate-crimes laws, is highly unlikely, he notes.