Critics See 'Slippery Slope' in Reintroduced Federal 'Hate Crimes' Law

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

( - As the new Democratic majority continues its 100-hour legislative blitz in the U.S. House, one Democrat has quietly reintroduced controversial legislation that would give the federal government more authority over so-called "hate crimes."

On Jan. 5, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas introduced a bill that would create federal guidelines for the sentencing of violent criminals who were "motivated by the actual or perceived race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or disability of the victim."

It expands the scope of current federal hate crime law, which extends federal oversight to crimes that prevent the victim from engaging in a federally protected right - such as voting - and that are motivated on the basis of race, color, religion or nationality.

The new bill expands the definition of a hate crime to include sexual orientation, gender and disability and allows for any violent crime to be considered a hate crime regardless of whether is affects a victim's ability to engage in a federally protected right.

According to the bill, Congress has the authority to oversee hate crimes because of its constitutional powers to supervise interstate commerce. "Such violence affects interstate commerce in many ways," the bill states, and "instrumentalities of interstate commerce are used to facilitate the commission of such violence."

Jackson-Lee has introduced similar legislation in the past. Since 1999, she has introduced the same bill every two years. None of the bills made it out of the House Committee on the Judiciary to see a vote on the House floor.

The bill passed the House in 2005 as an amendment to the Children's Safety Act, but the Senate did not pursue its full passage.

Opponents of the bill believe it threatens free speech by opening the door for legislation aimed at curbing offensive speech.

The National Prayer Network (NPN), a group that encourages Christians to pray for the country, calls the bill "the most dangerous legislation ever to come before Congress" and charges that "it leads directly to an end of free speech."

The bill specifically addresses violent crimes that result in bodily harm, but NPN Director Ted Pike said it "sets us on a slippery slope" toward limiting speech that is offensive to the protected groups.

Pike told Cybercast News Service the bill "is not as far-reaching in its formative state" as hate crimes legislation in Canada that has been used to limit criticism of homosexuality.

"But it does set up a bias-oriented federal justice system ... and it can inevitably be broadened to involve speech crimes as well as physical crimes," Pike argued.

"It will be up to judges ... to begin to interpret and adjudicate from the bench and inevitably they broaden out the definition of a hate crime," he added.

Opponents of the bill also insist that hate crimes are not a serious enough matter for Congress to address.

According to data collected from local law enforcement agencies by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there were 7,163 incidents of hate crimes in 2005. More than half of the crimes were motivated by race. Fewer than one in five were motivated by religion or sexual orientation.

Jackson-Lee's office was unavailable for comment on Monday, a federal holiday.

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