WASHINGTON — Conservative Christian leaders are fighting a bill that would provide federal hate-crimes coverage to gays and lesbians, prompting questions of who, if anyone, should be protected by such laws.
With a Democrat-controlled Congress and a president who has indicated his support for the Matthew Shepard Act, time may be running out for its opponents. To stop the legislation, a few Christian leaders have suggested repealing all hate-crimes laws, which would undo historic protections for race and even religion.
“The entire notion of hate-crimes legislation is extraneous and obsolete,” said Matt Barber, director of cultural affairs with the conservative nonprofit Liberty Counsel, adding that he believes hate-crimes laws are unconstitutional.
In addition, a number of Christian conservatives have raised fears that pastors would be prosecuted for inciting hate crimes if they had preached against homosexuality, despite assurances that the law only targets physical violence.
“All violent crime is hate crime,” said Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at Family Research Council here in the capital. “What drives an individual to commit a violent crime but hate for their victim?”
Hate crimes are only named as such when victims are targeted specifically because of their race, color, religion or national origin. Convictions for hate crimes carry harsher sentences because the victimization goes beyond the individual targeted.
“If you burn a cross on someone’s lawn, or put a swastika on a synagogue, the intent is not just vandalism,” said David Stacy, senior public policy advocate of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, a strong backer of the bill. “It’s to send a message to intimidate the community.”
Many religious groups publicly support the Matthew Shepard Act, even if their denominations view homosexuality as sinful. A 2007 Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans (68 percent) favor expanding hate-crimes protections. Majorities of frequent churchgoers (62 percent), conservatives (57 percent), and Republicans (60 percent) also were in favor of the legislation.
The Matthew Shepard Act, named for a gay Wyoming man slain in 1998, would add sexual orientation, gender identity and disability to the list of federally protected classes. It would also allow federal support for state and local police investigations, which often come with a hefty price tag.
The bill’s supporters doubt the sincerity of the Christian right’s constitutional arguments.
“These groups have long opposed any rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered Americans,” said Stacy. “One certainly has to question whether they believe this about hate-crimes laws in general or rather that this is really about their own bias against the LGBT community.”
If, as opponents of the bill say, gays and lesbians do not deserve hate crime protections, then who does?
Focus on the Family does not favor repealing hate-crime laws, but sees sexual orientation and gender identity as changeable, unlike race, for instance, said Ashley Horne, federal policy analyst for the Colorado-based group.
While Horne acknowledges individuals can change their religion, that category is the exception to the rule because “the government has historically protected religion since the founding of this country.”
The current federal hate-crimes law was put in place in 1968, during the Civil Rights era.
Barber and organizations like the FRC and the Alliance Defense Fund say the constitution covers all citizens adequately, without hate-crimes provisions.
“Everyone is receiving equal protection under the law, regardless of race, religion, gender, homosexuality, favorite color or `American Idol’ pick,” Barber said.
Hate crimes often go underreported. FBI statistics show annual hate crimes number around 7,000. However, a 2005 study done by the Department of Justice provided victim numbers as high as 190,000.
However, conservative groups believe local law enforcement officials are already doing the job without need of additional legislation.
“There is no evidence that a lack of prosecutions is occurring,” said Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel of Alliance Defense Fund. “There is a well-documented pattern that these crimes are being punished under current criminal law without adding any kind of hate crimes provisions.”
In Matthew Shepard’s case, his killers received life sentences without hate-crime laws; but the prosecution was expensive, with no help from federal funds. The proposed legislation would help local prosecutors tap federal resources.
Sean Kennedy, a 20-year-old gay man, was killed in South Carolina in 2007 in what many call a hate murder. His killer, Stephen Moller, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and is serving 12 months and 2 weeks in prison.
His mother, Elke Kennedy, believes if the Matthew Shepard Act had been in place, federal authorities could have stepped in, providing longer sentencing.
“I can’t do anything to change the past,” she said. “What I can do is take my energy in a positive way and help get the Matthew Shepard Act passed at the federal level and then work to change South Carolina laws.”