The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to expand a federal hate crimes law to include protections for gay people, despite an outcry against it from Religious Right groups.
The legislation, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, will allow the U.S. Justice Department to offer assistance when a crime that results in death or serious injury is committed against any American because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The law already covers such crimes involving race, color, religion or national origin.
The federal government could prosecute these cases even if local officials do not. H.R. 1913 also makes some federal money available for law enforcement training, to help police officers recognize bias-motivated violence and combat it.
Though the measure only penalizes assault and physical violence, not speech, Religious Right groups claim it will silence people of faith from speaking against homosexuality.
In a bulletin, the Family Research Council told pastors, “[H]ate crimes laws would radically impact our freedom of speech as Christians.”
But backers of the bill, including members of the clergy who endorsed the measure, insist this is completely false.
“This law,” a clergy coalition wrote to senators, “does not criminalize or impede religious expression in any way. Rather, the bill specifically addresses violent acts by those who act on their hate to terrorize entire communities.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who voted for the legislation, criticized Religious Right leaders for lying about the measure.
“People who submit that preachers could be arrested for preaching against homosexuality, which they do today, that they could be arrested, there is a commandment about that,” he said on the House floor. “Don’t bear false witness.”