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Hate Crimes Bill Dropped

Some religious conservatives had complained it threatened religious liberty and equality.

The hate crimes prevention act that was strongly opposed by some Christian conservatives was dropped from a defense bill Thursday.

House Democrats dropped the measure, which extended hate crimes protection to gays and lesbians, because they were worried the defense bill would not pass. Some religious conservatives were initially afraid the bill would infringe on religious liberty.

Groups who opposed the bill included the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and Exodus International. Some leaders were concerned that the bill would prevent pastors from speaking against homosexuality in the pulpit.

Supporters noted that the bill was limited to violent crimes and explicitly contained a provision that says nothing in the bill would prohibit free speech.

"There just doesn't seem to be any evidence that hate crime laws have been used to chill speech, they are really used for action," said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center. "Only if a minister were to directly incite people to violence or to utter speech that is already unprotected would that minister be subject to any prosecution."

Family Research Council believes the legislation would have increased federal control over local jurisdiction, says Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs.

"If jurisdictions are doing their duty, the federal government doesn't need to be involved on individual crimes," McClusky told CT. "There's no need for the federal government to become the local police force."

Also, he believes hate crimes are unhelpful because they classify certain victims as more worthy than other victims.

"Every crime should be classified as a hate crime. It eliminates that every one is being treated equally," he said. "If I'm hurt in a crime and its not designated hate crime, I have no recourse if I think the local police are doing nothing."

Haynes believes the bill reflects a larger concern that religious leaders are facing, which is society's desire to make homosexuality normalized.

"People who have very deep religious convictions are very concerned about the changing attitudes towards homosexuality, that's really the larger issue here," he told CT. "The more accepted it is, and the more it's recognized as part of the mainstream society."

Congressional Democrats dropped the hate crime measure because of political maneuvering. Many congressional Republicans opposed tagging non-military issues to the defense bill, and President Bush threatened to veto the bill because he felt state and local criminal laws already cover the new crimes. Congressional Democrats were threatening to withdraw their vote because it includes no timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

However, Haynes thinks that the country's hate crime laws need to be strengthened to allow for more federal intervention. Regardless of their views on sexual ethics he says, religious leaders must acknowledge that attacks on people based on sexual orientation are wrong.

"Religious leaders who are concerned about hate crimes legislation should separate out their views on homosexuality from what life is like for gays and lesbians in America," Haynes said. "They don't have to agree with someone's way of life in order to acknowledge that there are real threats to people that need to be addressed."

When it was proposed, the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act was named after Matthew Shepard, a college freshman who died after he was beaten into a coma in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming.

Related Elsewhere:

The Washington Post and The New York Times reported why House Democrats dropped the legislation.

The Associated Press rounded up initial response to the bill's withdrawal.

Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, National Religious Broadcasters, and others responded to the withdrawal. The New York Times lamented the bill's failure.

Christianity Today reported on the bill after it passed in the House of Representatives.

Christianity Today's Ted Olsen and Stan Guthrie earlier commented on the bill on the CT Liveblog.

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