Should Religious Conservatives Fear the Hate Crimes Bill?

Conservative Christians are saying that the bill threatens religious liberty.

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It's no secret that the gay rights movement has been disappointed by President Obama's first six months. Obama has failed to move on campaign promises to overturn the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act. Many gays and lesbians saw his recent order expanding some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees as an act of political tokenism.

And yet, gay rights advocates are poised for a major victory in Washington. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill expanding the federal hate crimes law to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans. The Senate is expected to quickly follow suit, and Obama has pledged his support. "It's taken a long time to get this teed up for a president who will sign it," says David Stacy, senior policy advocate for the Human Rights Campaign, noting that Congress has voted on the issue nine times in the past 12 years. "This will make clear that the federal government takes violence against the LGBT community seriously."

But conservative Christian groups, who've led the charge against expanding the federal hate crimes law since the mid-1990s, are stepping up warnings that the bill threatens religious liberties, including the freedom of clergy to condemn homosexuality. "What you say from the pulpit could literally become illegal," the Family Research Council wrote in a recent letter to pastors. The conservative Alliance Defense Fund has received more calls and E-mails on what the hate crimes bill means for pastors than on any other issue in recent months.

As religious conservatives mount a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, however, legal experts say the legislation narrowly focuses on violent acts and that pastors' speech remains protected by the First Amendment. And some religious activists acknowledge that they're less concerned about the immediate effects of expanding hate crimes protections than about the broader message it sends. "This is the first time you would have written into law a government disapproval of a religious belief held by the majority of Americans—that homosexuality is sinful," says Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund. "It's more of a slippery slope argument than about the law itself."

According to the FBI, 16 percent of the roughly 9,000 hate crimes committed in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, targeted the LGBT community. The two more common types of bias-motivated crimes, those based on race and religion, are already covered by the federal hate crimes law, adopted in 1968.

Expanding the law would authorize the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute violent crimes whose victims were allegedly chosen because of their sexual orientation in state or local jurisdictions unable or unwilling to do so. The bill moving through Congress also adds women and the disabled to the list of those covered by the law. Advocates say hate crimes laws are necessary because bias-motivated crimes terrorize entire communities.

But religious conservatives say that all crimes are motivated by hate and that gay victims shouldn't be accorded special status. Religious liberties are a much bigger concern. "When you have pastors being called to testify about what they taught or preached to a person convicted of a hate crime, that's going to send a shock wave through the religious community," says Stanley. "It will lead to a chill on speech and free exercise of religion as it relates to homosexual behavior."

Legal experts note that under the hate crimes bill, a person's religious beliefs about homosexuality become relevant only once he or she is accused of a violent crime against someone from the LGBT community. The bill prohibits a defendant's religious expressions and associations from being introduced as substantive evidence at trial, though the information can be used to help determine whether the defendant was motivated by bias. "Your penalty is being enhanced because of your religious beliefs," says Prof. Douglas Laycock of the University of Michigan Law School. "But you're being prosecuted for the crime."