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Foes: Hate crimes bill could target churches


WASHINGTON (BP) — Legislation to extend hate crimes protections to homosexuals and transgendered individuals could severely restrict religious freedom, foes of the proposal said April 28 as they sought to rally opposition.

Members of the House of Representatives and leaders of evangelical Christian and conservative organizations, including the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity, warned about the bill’s impact at a Capitol Hill news conference on the eve of the measure’s consideration in the House. The Democratic leadership brought the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, H.R. 1913, to the House floor April 29, where it was approved.

The measure adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the current classes – including 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.

“This bill puts Christians and many other religious groups in the government’s crosshairs,” Barrett Duke said at the news conference. Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“While we should never condone acts of violence against anyone, for whatever reason, including whether or not that person is a homosexual, this bill proposes to prosecute someone based on their belief about homosexuality and therefore makes religious belief a germane issue in this debate,” Duke said.

The bill’s opponents not only charge it could infringe on religious liberty, but they say current state laws make it unnecessary; it would grant protection based on behavior; it would threaten free-speech rights; and 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.

Supporters of the legislation deny it would target religious freedom and free-speech rights. Backing the measure are homosexual-rights advocates and their allies, including the ACLU, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League and People for the American Way.

Among organizations oppossing the bill are Concerned Women for America, High Impact Leadership Coalition, Traditional Values Coalition and National Black Church Initiative.

President Obama has indicated he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

The House and Senate both passed similar legislation in 2007. Under threat of a veto from President Bush, the houses failed to agree on a final version.

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.