The Senate is expected to pass legislation that would broaden the hate crimes law to include sexual orientation, a proposal that has set-off alarm bells for conservative Christian groups in the last several months.
The House passed a different version of the bill in April that would allow federal aid to investigate crimes committed because of an individual's sexual orientation. Last week, the House voted 281-146 to approve the legislation, which includes new language that could alleviate some religious freedom concerns, says Carl H. Esbeck, law professor at the University of Missouri.
The bill protects an accused person's free exercise of religion, speech, and association unless it is intended to "plan or prepare for an act of physical violence" or "incite an imminent act of physical violence."
Groups opposed to the bill were concerned that if a religious leader were to preach against homosexuality and a parishioner were to later commit a hate crime against someone for being gay, the minster could be charged with aiding and abetting the crime.
The act states, "Nothing in this division shall be construed to allow prosecution based solely upon an individual's expression of racial, religious, political, or other beliefs or solely upon an individual's membership in a group advocating or espousing such beliefs."
That language suggests that in most circumstances, a religious leader could not successfully be prosecuted under this act, Esbeck said.
"I'm grateful for the work that was done by others to make this act far, far more accommodating to religious freedom concerns, which were legitimate," he said.
However, Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, believes that the provisions do not offer anything new that ...1