Hate Crimes Law Could Muzzle Free Speech, Critics Fear

By Fred Lucas | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - On Oct. 10, 2004, 70-year-old Linda Beckman went to jail overnight for publicly objecting to a homosexual rights rally in Philadelphia, an action that violated Pennsylvania's hate crimes law.

The grandmother of 10, who was one of 11 people arrested during a counter-protest, has now joined forces with social conservative groups in hopes of preventing a similar law from being enacted at a federal level.

"We were sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ," Beckman says in a forthcoming commercial arguing that federal hate crimes legislation threatens free speech. "When you send grandmothers to jail, it goes too far."

A House Judiciary subcommittee held hearings Tuesday on the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which critics say would be similar to the Pennsylvania hate crimes law that allows prosecutions for alleged intimidation.

The proposal would essentially place homosexuals and lesbians in a protected class along with racial minorities. (See Related Story)

Supporters argue that the legislation, introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), poses no threat to First Amendment rights.

"Too often we've seen hate crimes go unpunished due to inadequate resources or a bias against the victim," said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union.

"At the same time, we also believe that these prosecutions should be based on the defendant's actions, not on his or her beliefs or organizational memberships, unless they're directly related to a crime," she said.

In the U.S. Senate, Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), have also co-sponsored a hate crimes bill called the "Matthew Shepard Bill," named for a University of Wyoming student beaten to death in 1998 by attackers who were offended by his homosexuality.

"As a nation founded on the ideals of tolerance and justice, we simply cannot accept violence that is motivated by bias and hate," Smith said in a statement. "Current law is limited. Our proposal would change that and change it permanently."

"After eight-and-a-half years since Matthew's death, his memory continues to be a ringing reminder, even at the highest levels of our government, about the need for this legislation," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Similar legislation has been introduced in past years but has a far greater chance of making it through both houses of Congress with Democrats in control, said Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, a Christian ministry for former homosexuals and lesbians.

Chambers said while an anti-hate crimes bill may sound benevolent and reasonable on its face, it is unnecessary and will have consequences on free speech, as has been apparent in other countries.

"In Canada, the U.K. and Denmark, we've seen similar prohibitions against speech," Chambers told Cybercast News Service. He added that Christian broadcaster James Dobson "can't do his full broadcast in the nation of Canada" because of commentary on his show regarding homosexuality.

Violent acts are already illegal in the United States, Chambers said. They should be prosecuted whether or not the victim is a homosexual.

"To make them a protected class says I was more valuable as a homosexual than I am today as a former homosexual," he argued. "Children aren't a protected class. This would say a gay man is more valuable than children or the elderly."

Conservative groups are relying on President Bush to veto the bill, Chambers said.

Opponents of the legislation point out that Shepard's murderers were convicted and punished under existing laws.

"The law already protects everyone equally," Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) said in a statement. "What hate crimes legislation does, it begins to treat people unequally."

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