WASHINGTON The U.S. House of Representatives has easily approved hate crimes protections for homosexuals and transgendered individuals that opponents believe could seriously hinder religious freedom.
The House voted 249-175 for the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the current categories such as race, religion and national origin protected from hate crimes. "Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality, while "gender identity," or transgendered status, takes in transsexuals and cross-dressers.
The legislation awaits action in the Senate, which passed a similar measure in 2007. President Obama has indicated he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Evangelical Christian and conservative leaders expressed dismay over the April 29 vote. They warn the legislation, when combined with existing law, could cause problems for Christians who espouse the biblical teaching that homosexual behavior and other sexual relations outside marriage are sinful.
If a person commits a violent act based on a victim's "sexual orientation" after hearing the Bible's teaching, for instance, that homosexual behavior is a sin, the teacher or preacher could be charged with inducing a person to commit the crime, some critics of the legislation say.
"Make no mistake about it the House of Representatives has voted to condemn the belief that homosexuality and many other biblically offensive sexual behaviors are contrary to God's design," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy at the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
"No one should engage in acts of violence against someone merely because he is a homosexual, but neither should a person's religiously held beliefs about homosexuality serve as grounds for federal prosecution," Duke said.
Rep. Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., a Southern Baptist, told the House after it approved the bill April 29, "This legislation would prosecute individuals not on the basis of their crimes but on their alleged motivations for committing those crimes. It requires law enforcement officials and prosecutors to gather evidence of the offender's thoughts rather than of his actions and his criminal intent. This should strike us all as inherently dangerous."
The Alliance Defense Fund, which represents religiously motivated individuals in courtrooms across the country, said the legislation fails to do "anything to bring about greater justice for Americans."
"So-called 'hate crime' laws serve only one purpose: The criminalization of citizens based on whatever thoughts, beliefs and emotions they have that are not considered to be 'politically correct,'" ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in a written statement.
Supporters of the legislation deny it would target religious freedom and free-speech rights. The bill includes language saying it will not "be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the Constitution."
The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest homosexual rights organization, and other "gay rights" advocates as well as such civil liberties groups as the ACLU, NAACP, Anti-defamation League and People for the American Way are working for the legislation's passage.
Some evangelicals such as Florida pastor Joel Hunter, Mercer University ethics professor David Gushee and Sojourners President Jim Wallis issued endorsements on the day the bill was approved.
"I would think that the followers of Jesus would be first in line to protect any group from hate crimes," Hunter said in a release issued by Faith in Public Life, a left-leaning organization promoting faith in the public arena. "This bill protects both the rights of conservative religious people to voice passionately their interpretations of their scriptures and protects their fellow citizens from physical attack."
In addition to the ERLC and ADF, other organizations opposing the measure include Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, High Impact Leadership Coalition and Liberty Counsel.
The strong House majority supporting the bill consisted of 231 Democrats and 18 Republicans. Seventeen Democrats joined 158 GOP members in voting against the measure.
Among Democrats voting "no" on the bill were four members of Southern Baptist churches: Reps. Bobby Bright of Alabama; Travis Childers of Mississippi; Lincoln Davis of Tennessee and Heath Shuler of North Carolina.
The legislation would authorize the U.S. attorney general to provide assistance to state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The bill 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."
The penalty for a hate crime could be as much as 10 years in prison or, in some cases, up to a life sentence.
The House-approved bill is H.R. 1913.