UPDATED: Obama signs hate crimes act
WASHINGTON (BP)--The homosexual movement gained a barrier-breaking victory Oct. 28 when President Obama signed into law a measure extending hate-crimes protections to homosexuals and transgender people.
The president's signature on the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act put into effect not only an annual bill for the U.S. military but enshrined into federal law the most significant legislative advance to date for homosexual activists.
The new hate-crimes law is "the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect" lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans and "a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, America's largest gay-rights organization.
The president reserved his remarks at the White House signing ceremony primarily for the focus of the bill, the Department of Defense's reauthorization, although he did comment briefly on the hate-crimes provision. Later in the day, however, he spoke at a special White House commemoration of the hate-crimes expansion.
The measure's signing is "another step forward" on "the journey towards a more perfect union," Obama told supporters of the hate-crimes legislation.
Speaking of the decade-plus effort to enact the proposal, the president said, "Time and again we've been reminded of the difficulty of building a nation in which we're all free to live and love as we see fit."
The hate-crimes language in the new law adds "sexual orientation" and "gender identity," as well as disability, to the current categories -- such as race, religion and gender -- protected from hate crimes. "Sexual orientation" includes homosexuality and bisexuality, while "gender identity," or transgendered status, takes in transsexuals and cross-dressers.
Advocates of freedom of religion and of speech, as well as of the biblical view of sexuality, expressed dismay at the development, even though they oppose violence against homosexuals. They fear the measure, combined with existing law, could expose to prosecution Christians and others who proclaim the Bible's teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful. For example, if a person commits a violent act based on a victim's "sexual orientation" after hearing biblical teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior, the preacher or teacher could be open to a charge of inducing the person to commit the crime, some foes say.
"I am disappointed that President Obama has signed the hate-crimes bill into law, but I am not surprised," said Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "The President has been clear, even before he was elected, that he intends to champion the homosexual agenda. This is merely one of a number of steps he will take in fulfilling that commitment.
"It is my prayer that people of faith will not be deterred from sharing God's truth about homosexuality because of this law," Duke told Baptist Press. "Our nation needs that truth now more than ever."
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), an alliance of Christian lawyers who seek to protect religious liberty, said the hate-crimes expansion "is another nail in the coffin for the First Amendment."
"All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice," ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley said in a written statement. "This law is a grave threat to the First Amendment because it provides special penalties based on what people think, feel, or believe.
"Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime," Stanley said. "The bottom line is that we do not need a law that creates second-class victims in America and that gives the government the opportunity to ignore the First Amendment."
The final version of the bill approved by the Senate and House included language designed to protect freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion, but at least some religious liberties organizations do not consider the protections adequate.
The new law is the first in what gay rights advocates hope will be a series of victories at the federal level. Other efforts by homosexual-rights organizations include:
-- Passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would extend workplace protections to homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders.
-- Repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bars homosexuals from serving in the U.S. armed forces but also prohibits the military from investigating without just cause a member regarding his "sexual orientation."
-- Reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing "same-sex marriages" and gives states the option to refuse to recognize such unions from another state.
Obama signed the bill six days after the Senate voted 68-29 for the overall defense measure, which was used as a vehicle for the hate-crimes legislation even though it is not directly related to the controversial provision. The House of Representatives voted 281-146 on Oct. 8 for the same defense bill.
The House voted 249-175 in April for hate-crimes expansion as a stand-alone bill. The Senate approved similar hate-crimes language as part of the defense authorization bill in July. The different versions of the defense legislation went to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers selected to negotiate a compromise. That committee reported the bill out with the hate-crimes language included.
According to the hate-crimes language in the bill, it "applies to violent acts motivated by actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of a victim."
Under the provision in the defense bill, people convicted of a hate crime would be subject to more prison time and penalties than people who commit a crime that falls outside the class of hate crimes.
The law authorizes the attorney general to provide assistance to state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Michael Foust, assistant editor of Baptist Press.