Conservative Christian opposition to federal hate crimes bill lingers

Some conservative Christian groups remain opposed to a bill moving quickly through the U.S. Senate which would strengthen the legal standing of gays and lesbians against hate crimes. The bill, S. 909, advanced on a procedural vote Thursday night. A similar bill was passed in April in the House. Republicans may propose several more changes to the bill on Monday, but that will not change its status as part of the must-pass defense bill, according to the Associated Press. Opposition to the bill softened on the part of the National Religious Broadcasters on Friday when an amendment drafted by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) limited the scope of the bill to protect speech from the pulpit opposed to homosexuality as long as there wasn’t a clear link between that speech and violent acts. NRB Senior Vice President and General Counsel Craig Parshall told Broadcasting & Cable that if the amendment hadn’t passed, “our Christian communicators would face an unbridled, vicious juggernaut of censorship, where federal criminal ‘hate crime’ laws could be used to shut-down free speech and religious expression.” The bill was still heavily criticized Friday by Federal Issues Analyst Ashley Horne of Focus on the Family Action, the Colorado Springs-based organization’s advocacy wing. “By voting in ‘hate crimes’ legislation under the cover of the Defense Authorization bill, Congress enacted a law that is unnecessary, unjust, constitutionally suspect, and that opens the door for religiously-based prosecutions,” Horne said in a statement. “The language of ‘hate crimes’ creates a problematic, preferred-victim ranking system by granting special protection to individuals based on their ‘actual or perceived’ sexual orientation or ‘gender identity.’ This violates the 14th Amendment’s granting of equal protection to all American citizens under the law.” Horne also took issue with any possibility the law could limit Christians’ free speech rights. “Most chillingly, this measure threatens our precious First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech,” she said. “Would a pastor preaching from the Bible be prosecuted for ‘inducing’ a federal hate crime if one of his listeners was violent towards a self-identified homosexual?” “We are appalled that Congress would pass a law that falls short on so many measures and can be used to target those who speak or preach on homosexuality from a biblical perspective.” Despite the opposition, passage, reconciliation with the House legislation and a signature by President Obama are all likely. Thursday’s vote was by a 63-28 margin, eliminating any possibility of a GOP-led filibuster. The bill is named the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Shepard was a gay college student in Wyoming murdered in 1968 because of his sexuality. The Human Rights Commission, a leading national advocate for LGBT rights, hailed the bill’s advancement. “Once again, we have demonstrated that more than 60 Senators support the Matthew Shepard Act, legislation that will provide police and sheriffs’ departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said in a statement. “Today’s key vote move this legislation one step closer to the President’s desk. With the support of an overwhelming majority of the American people, including more than 300 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations, it is past time we take this important step toward combating hate in our country.” Links: National Religious Broadcasters: http://www.nrb.org/ Focus on the Family: http://www.focusonthefamily.com/ Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org/index.htm Text of S. 909: http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-s909/text

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