(CNS) - The Hate Crimes Prevention Act, included as an amendment to the Justice Department Appropriations bill, will likely come to the floor of the Senate today or tomorrow.
Inserted by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the bill would impose automatic federal penalties on top of crimes determined to have been motivated by racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation hatred. The bill also funds educational curriculum that many conservatives believe denigrate religious objections to homosexuality.
"Senator Kennedy's bill criminalizes beliefs rather than actions, and attempts to link Christian teachings to violent crimes," said Andrea Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, an advocacy group of more than 40,000 evangelical churches.
"Instead of 'the devil made me do it,' Senator Kennedy and other liberals are stretching to say that church makes people turn to violence," continued Sheldon.
Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association said in a release that the bill "would bring the full power of federal law to bear against individuals and organizations that publicly advocate a pro-marriage or religious view on the subject of homosexuality."
He added that "state criminal laws adequately address violence against homosexuals" and emphasized that the "AFA condemns acts of violence."
Both Wildmon and Sheldon indicated that their groups will sponsor grassroots campaigns to remove the language from the bill.
Proponents of the language have utilized an alleged increase in hate crimes in recent years as proof for the necessity of the legislation. For example, earlier this year, Attorney General Janet Reno released statistics on hate crimes committed in 1996, saying that the report demonstrates "what we long believed is true: hate crimes have long gone underreported, and we need surveys like this to understand the depth of the problem."
However, as reported by CNSNews.com earlier this year, that increase is hate crimes is exactly the same as the increase in the number of localities reporting hate crimes under new federal guidelines.
Overall, CNSNews.com research showed that the 8,759 hate crimes in 1996, the last year full data was available, accounted for just slightly more than two one-hundredths of one percent of the 37 million total crimes committed in the U.S. that year.
Earlier this year, Hadley Arkes, the Ney professor of constitutional law at Amherst University in Massachusetts, told CNSNews.com that "some words can be a form of assault; so-called 'fighting words.'" Nonetheless, he accused many of those who support hate crime legislation of violating the basic premise of the unrestricted free speech they also often advocate.
"If all speech is protected under the Constitution," Arkes said, "even things like burning a cross as a form of protest, then how do you criminalize some forms of speech?"
Rev. Rob Schenck, general secretary of the National Clergy Council, an ecumenical group of religious leaders, feels that the low incidence of hate crimes and high level of prosecution leave politics as the only reason for the Clinton Administration's strong push for passing hate crime legislation.
"It is fundamentally unjust to assign, through legislation, a social motive to a specific crime. . . . This administration has a history of using legal devices to push for a cultural normalization of homosexuality," Schenck told CNSNews.com.