Kansas Liberty: 26 October 2009
Judy Smith: 'Just because a person practices a certain sexual behavior shouldn’t make them a special class of citizen.'
Hate crime amendment could affect personal freedoms, opponents say
The Defense Authorization Bill passed the U. S. Senate Thursday on a vote of 68-29, and is now on its way to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign the bill. The House passed the bill Oct. 8, 281-146.
Two of the three members of the Kansas Republican delegation voted against the bill. Second District Republican Rep. Lynn Jenkins joined with Third District Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat, to vote in favor of the bill.
The bill authorizes roughly $680 billion in federal funds to be used for national defense, including $130 billion to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though the core aspects of the legislation directly address defense needs, Democrats managed to add on an amendment regarding “hate crimes,” a tactic that fueled controversy.
The provision allows for actual or perceived “sexual orientation” and gender identity to be included under the umbrella of "hate crimes."
If an offender is determined to have targeted their victim because of characteristics such as race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability that crime is put into the category of “hate crimes” and it could result in stiffer punishments, including longer jail sentences.
The provision, known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was named after two murder victims — Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old homosexual college student, and James Byrd, an African-American — who were both killed in 1998.
Current laws allow for most "hate crimes" to be prosecuted at the state level, unless the crime was committed during a “federally protected activity” such as attending school. This amendment would eliminate requiring a crime to be committed on federal property for it to be labeled a federal hate crime, thus broadening the federal government’s ability to prosecute.
The initiative had been introduced in previous years, but former President George W. Bush was consistently opposed to the "hate crimes" measure, arguing that current laws were sufficient. Opponents of the "hate crime" amendment argue the measure could erode freedom of speech rights, and warn that the measure could be used as leverage to legalize gay marriage.
Fourth District Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt said he voted against the bill because of the hate crimes provision, arguing that the Democrats had used the legislation “as a vehicle for their radical views.”
Tiahrt also said that the provision allowed for greater protection for persons with a perceived sexual orientation than for pregnant women, veterans or the elderly.
“Every crime is a hate crime and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Tiahrt said. "Attaching this type of politically correct judicial discrimination to a must-pass bill that supports our troops is a great barometer to show exactly how far left congressional Democrats are and where their priorities lie."
First District Republican Rep. Jerry Moran issued a strong warning about the implications the "hate crimes" amendment could have.
"I strongly support our troops and in June voted for a previous version of the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that did not contain the hate crimes provision,” Moran said. “This provision undermines the legal principle of 'equal justice under the law' and may lead to the unfair prosecution of pastors, religious leaders and people of faith who express their beliefs."
Moran and Tiahrt are rivals in the race to gain the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sam Brownback.
The Democrats had originally introduced the provision as a stand-alone bill and the measure passed the House in April 249-175. The bill was introduced in the Senate and then referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Tiahrt pointed out that the Democrats added the provision onto a “must pass” bill, a tactic generally used to guarantee votes for an unpopular or controversial initiative. The tactic worked in switching Jenkins’ vote. Moore voted for the stand-alone bill, while Jenkins, Moran and Tiahrt voted against it.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Democrat leadership used this important legislation to force through their controversial hate crimes legislation,” Jenkins said after voting for the defense bill. “While I oppose this provision, the entire bill provides essential resources for our men and women in uniform and I will always support our troops.”
Opponents of the provision are concerned it may have lead to a string of consequences, including imparting limits on person freedoms such as freedom of speech, or the freedom of religious groups to communicate and practice their beliefs.
“This new law (now contained within the Defense Appropriations Bill) is a direct affront to our First Amendment rights. Vote by vote, we are losing our basic rights granted to us by our Constitution,” the Leavenworth County Republican Party said in its newsletter.
The Human Rights Campaign, a proponent of the hate crime amendment, said the law would not affect freedom of speech.
“The act does not punish, nor prohibit in any way, name-calling, verbal abuse or expressions of hatred toward any group, even if such statements amount to hate speech,” the group said. “The act does not punish thought or speech or criticism of another person. The act punishes only violent actions — not thoughts or beliefs — based on prejudice.”
Judy Smith, state director for Concerned Women for America, said she has numerous concerns with how the soon-to-be law would affect freedom of speech, the ability to communicate religious teachings and the sanctity of marriage.
“To say this bothers me would be a great understatement,” Smith told Kansas Liberty. “Just because a person practices a certain sexual behavior shouldn’t make them a special class of citizen.”
Smith, who also serves as a Bible study teacher, said she questioned whether teaching a part of the Bible that directly addresses homosexuality could be punishable under the new law.
“It’s going to push Christians into a situation in which they really have to be able to stand on the truth, no matter what the consequences,” Smith said.
Smith’s concerns were a reality for Stephen Boissoin, a youth pastor in Canada, who was fined $7,000 by the Alberta Human Rights Commission after being critical of homosexuality in a letter he wrote to a newspaper in 2002.
Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, acknowledged that he shared many of the concerns voiced by opponents of the measure, but noted that only time would tell if these concerns would become reality.
“It is inevitable these issues will end up in the hands of the courts,” Schuttloffel told Kansas Liberty. “It is just a big question mark of how this will play out, but we don’t have at tremendous amount of confidence in how the courts interpret these things.”
For example, Schuttloffel questioned whether a priest or pastor could be held responsible for “inciting hatred” if one of the members of their congregation committed a violent act after listening to the pastor reference homosexuality in a sermon.
“There are questions of where this will lead, and if it is part of a bigger agenda,” he said. “But it's hard to say at this point.”