Twelve years of activism by Jewish groups is nearing an end as Congress prepares to approve legislation that would expand the definition of hate crimes to include actions based on a victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability.
Jewish groups have been front and center in lobbying for the inclusion of these categories in the existing law, which already defines as hate crimes those that are committed on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin.
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crime Prevention Act is named after the gay student who was brutally murdered in Wyoming in 1998 because of his sexual orientation. Shepard’s murderers received life sentences, but the case was not prosecuted as a hate crime.
Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, who worked on the expanded hate crimes bill for more than a decade, said pushing it forward was in the interests of the Jewish community because of the leading role Jews play in fighting against hate crimes and for civil liberties.
“We must be cognizant of the fact that the third most common victims of hate crimes are gays and lesbians,” Lieberman said. The most common factor in hate crimes is race, according to FBI statistics. The second most common is religion. Crimes against Jews make up 70% of the religion category, according to the FBI data.
At times, the prolonged standoff over expanding the definition of a hate crime pitted Jewish activists against conservative Christian leaders, who argued the new legislation would criminalize opposition to homosexuality voiced from the pulpit.
In June 23 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee debating the bill, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, argued the legislation would infringe on the rights of religious groups that are protected by the First Amendment.
“While the bill before us is ostensibly limited to acts which cause bodily harm, it would put us on a slippery slope toward the punishment of so-called ‘hate speech’ as well,” Perkins said. The Family Research Council issued an alert to pastors warning them that “what you say from the pulpit could literally become illegal.”
Before the vote, another group, Focus on the Family, urged its supporters to sign an online petition arguing that the proposed legislation would be the “first step toward ultimately gagging our pastors and other ministry leaders who are faithfully preaching the Scripture about God’s plan for human sexuality.”
The ADL’s Lieberman believes that the differing viewpoints over the bill will not damage interfaith dialogue between Jews and Christians. “The opposition is mainly conservative, not Christian,” he said, adding that many Christian groups joined forces with the Jewish community in promoting the bill.
Conservative Christian opposition stalled passage of the legislation throughout the Bush administration.
The Obama administration and a massive Democratic majority in Congress paved the way for pushing the bill forward, although its supporters chose a controversial legislative path: The bill was attached as an amendment to the defense authorization bill, must-pass legislation that provides funds for the United States armed forces. Senate Republicans argued that hate crime legislation deserves a separate debate and should not be attached to the Pentagon spending bill, but in a July 16 vote, the Senate approved the measure 63 to 28. The House had earlier approved a similar bill.
The legislation is still awaiting debate in a Congressional conference committee that will attempt to iron out differences between the Senate and House versions. Political observers believe passage of the bill is imminent, which would then go to President Obama for his signature.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.