WASHINGTON The Senate voted Sept. 27 to add homosexuals and transgendered individuals to the classes protected under hate crimes laws.
Supporters of the controversial measure gained its passage as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill, purportedly to make it difficult for President Bush to veto. The White House, however, has promised a veto by the president, even if it is part of the Defense bill.
"I hope and pray that if this bill makes its way to the president's desk that he will fulfill his promise to veto it," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC).
The Senate passed the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D.-Mass., with a voice vote. Passage was a foregone conclusion after senators approved a cloture motion to end debate on the amendment. The vote was 60-39, giving backers exactly the number of votes required to bring the amendment to the floor for a vote on passage. All 39 "no" votes came from Republicans.
The president has the upper hand in the battle over hate crimes expansion. The Senate and House of Representatives each would have to achieve a two-thirds majority to override a veto. The House, for certain, is far short of that goal. It approved in May a similar measure as a stand-alone bill with a 237-180 roll call, 41 votes short of a veto-proof majority.
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 warn 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 could lead to suppression of speech that describes homosexual behavior as sinful.
Supporters of the bill contend it would only cover violent criminal conduct.
"People should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law when they commit crimes against persons or property," Land told Baptist Press. "It is a dangerous mistake to try to separate and elevate some crimes of violence as being more heinous than other crimes of violence because of the purported motives of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim. Murder is murder and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of the possible motives of the murderer or the racial, ethnic or sexual identity of the victim.
"It's called blind justice for a reason," he said. "It is why the symbol for law is a blindfolded woman holding the scales of justice. It's called blind justice because justice should be meted out based on actions, refusing to take into account the particular identities of perpetrators or victims."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in a written statement, "Congress needs to remember that preserving equal justice under the law is more important than scoring points with advocates of homosexual behavior. Congress should represent all Americans, not give special protections for some."
The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country's largest homosexual activist organization, hailed the Senate action.
"For over a decade our community has worked tirelessly to ensure protections to combat violence motivated by hate and today we are the closest we have ever been to seeing that become a reality," HRC President Joe Solmonese said in a written release.
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 website. 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.
After approving Kennedy's bill, the Senate voted 96-3 for what was billed as an alternative proposal by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah. The Hatch measure would require a study of investigations and prosecutions by state and local officials of hate crimes.The House and Senate both have passed such hate crimes measures in past sessions, but they have yet to agree on a version to send to the White House.