WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill May 3 to add homosexuals and transgendered individuals to the classes protected under hate crimes laws.
The House voted 237-180 for the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The vote was largely along party lines, with 212 Democrats and 25 Republicans favoring the measure, while 166 GOP members and 14 Democrats opposed it.
It appears only a veto by President George W. Bush will prevent the bill from becoming law. The White House released a policy statement a few hours before the vote, saying senior advisers in the administration would recommend Bush veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
The Senate, which has yet to take up the bill, seems assured of having a comfortable margin for passage. The House and Senate both have passed versions in separate sessions in the past, but they have yet to agree on a measure to send to the White House.
Current hate crimes law protects traits such as race, religion and national origin, but the bill's opponents say the new legislation would grant protection based on lifestyle. They also say it would move federal law toward punishing thoughts and beliefs, since the motivation of a person charged with a hate crime would have to be evaluated. In addition, some critics warn it eventually could result in suppression of speech that describes homosexual behavior as sinful.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said after the House vote that the legislation "could well lead to serious infringements of our First Amendment freedom of speech protections in the United States. Such legislation has had a very chilling effect on free speech in Canada, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. All violent crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, regardless of the motivation which drove the perpetrators to commit those crimes and regardless of the identity of the victims."
Land said it "is imperative that the president veto" the measure.
"(I)f the Senate joins the House in overreaching on this matter, the president should indeed exercise his constitutional prerogative and veto this dangerous legislation. It is comforting to know that his senior advisers will recommend just such a course of action," he said.
Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, said in a written statement that the bill does not pass constitutional scrutiny.
"Criminalizing thoughts as well as actions, and creating special categories of victims, is unconstitutional," he said. "This legislation creates second-class victims and a legal system of 'separate and unequal.'"
Activists laud vote
Homosexual activist organizations applauded the House vote.
"This is a historic day that moves all Americans closer to safety from the scourge of hate violence," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese in a written release.
HRC is the country's largest homosexual advocacy group.
The 14 Democrats who voted against the legislation are: Marion Berry and Mike Ross, both of Arkansas; Dan Boren of Oklahoma; Christopher Carney of Pennsylvania; Robert Cramer of Alabama; Lincoln Davis and Bart Gordon, both of Tennessee; Joe Donnelly and Brad Ellsworth, both of Indiana; Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler, both of North Carolina; Charlie Melancon of Louisiana; Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
The bill would authorize the U.S. attorney general to provide assistance to state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, as well as expand the categories covered by the law to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," among others. The legislation says a hate crime is one "motivated by prejudice based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim, or is a violation of the state, local, or tribal hate crime laws."
"Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality. "Gender identity" is a "person's innate sense of gender," which may be different than his sex, according to HRC's Web site. Transgender is an umbrella term for "people who live all or substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their birth sex," according to HRC. The transgender category includes transsexuals and cross-dressers.
The House bill is H.R. 1592, while the Senate version is S. 1105. Rep. John Conyers, D.-Mich., is the House sponsor, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., is the sponsor in the Senate.