(CNSNews.com) - The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday is expected to pass federal hate-crimes legislation, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of federally protected classes.
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 would allow the federal government to intervene in state and local legal matters when crimes "motivated by race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation" are committed.
The bill allows the federal government to intervene on the state and local level when hate crimes occure -- allowing the U.S. government to prosecute hate crimes as federal crimes with enhanced penalties.
Under the legislation, “the Attorney General may provide technical, forensic, prosecutorial, or any other form of assistance in the criminal investigation or prosecution” of any crime motivated by prejudice.
Proponents of the bill, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), an openly homosexual member of Congress, say it gives homosexuals the same protection from discrimination granted to those who are harassed because of their race, ethnicity or religion.
“The law already increases penalties for crimes motivated by hatred in several categories, so the absence of protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people is particularly egregious,” Frank said in a statement.
“This bill remedies that gap in a responsible way, fully respectful of constitutional rights and I look forward to it being passed and signed by a president who is committed to ending discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
But several religious liberties groups oppose the measure, saying it is unnecessary and would limit free speech and potentially leave religious figures that speak against homosexuality open to prosecution.
“Violent crime is already illegal and there are already penalties available – a gradient of penalties based on severity,” said Matt Barber, director of cultural policy for Liberty Counsel, a religious rights organization.
“What’s more,” he said, “every American currently, regardless of their sexual preference, is guaranteed the same equal protection under the law.”
What hate-crimes laws do, Barber said, is “take the focus off the crime itself and instead puts the focus on the opinion of the alleged perpetrator.”
“It becomes a thought crime and not a hate crime,” he told CNSNews.com.
Thanks to hate-crimes laws in Canada and in the European Union, Christian groups have already become targets for hate-speech prosecution, Barber pointed out.
“Hate-crimes legislation (in other countries), which is basically identical to the proposed U.S. legislation for all intents and purposes, has turned out to be the precursor to even more oppressive hate-speech legislation, which directly squashes any opposition to the homosexual lifestyle or even affirmatively promoting traditional sexual morality,” he added.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, agreed, saying the legal framework that the bill establishes will virtually guarantee the eventual prosecution of religious leaders who speak against homosexuality.
“H.R. 1913 broadly defines ‘intimidation,’” Lafferty said. “A pastor’s sermon could be considered ‘hate speech’ under this legislation if heard by an individual who then acts aggressively against persons based on any sexual orientation. The pastor could be prosecuted for ‘conspiracy to commit a hate crime.’ ”
Lafferty told CNSNews.com that during committee markup of identical legislation in 2007, one of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), admitted that the hate-crime legislation would not exempt a pastor from prosecution in that scenario.
The bill, meanwhile, appropriates $5 million in additional funding for Fiscal Year 2010 and 2011 to go to state and local law enforcement to prosecute hate crimes. A jurisdiction cannot receive a grant in excess of $100,000 for any one-year period.
Congress is expected to swiftly pass the bill, which is sponsored by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
President Barack Obama, who co-sponsored hate-crimes legislation as a U.S. senator, is expected to sign the bill into law, if it reaches his desk.