(CNSNews.com) - With the support of liberal Republicans, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has reintroduced legislation that would expand federal hate crime laws to include crimes motivated by a victim's "sexual orientation."
Co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), Kennedy's bill would add the new classification to existing laws that target violence because of race and religion, in effect granting special protection to homosexuals as a class of people.
The bill, titled the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2003, also would increase federal jurisdiction in hate crimes, allowing the Justice Department to investigate crimes against homosexuals even if local authorities found no reason to prosecute them, legal analysts said.
Comparing hate crimes to terrorism, Kennedy said in prepared remarks Thursday that hate crimes "are a violation of everything our country stands for. Like all acts of terrorism, they have an impact far greater than that suffered by the individual victims and their families."
Arabs and Muslims also have been increasingly targets of hate crimes since 9/11, particularly in Los Angeles and Chicago. In all, law enforcement officials registered 9,730 hate crimes in the United States in 2001, Kennedy said, citing FBI figures.
Sponsors of the bill said they had the support of 175 law enforcement and religious groups.
In previous years, Kennedy succeeded in passing two similar hate crime bills in the Senate; the legislation did not pass in the House, however.
The new legislation would strengthen the ability of federal, state and local governments to investigate and prosecute hate crimes based on race, ethnic background, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
It would also enable the Justice Department to assist state and local agencies in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, as well as provide grants to help state and local governments meet the expenses involved in hate crime cases.
Hate crime laws, which are on the books in 42 states and the District of Columbia, vary in their application and effect but generally provide for increased fines and jail terms if it can be proven a crime was motivated by racial, ethnic or gender-based hatred.
Twenty-one states with hate crime laws include legislation against acts of violence based on "sexual orientation."
Opponents of hate crime legislation say existing laws already cover the new statutes. Moreover, hate crimes are basically unenforceable, they say.
"Hate crime laws violate the constitutional provision of equal protection of the laws," said Michael Schwartz, vice president of government relations with Concerned Women for America.
"They force prosecutors to inquire into the motivations of criminals, and the essence of criminal law in the Anglo-American tradition has been the determination of external acts, not internal dispositions," he said.
Once prosecutors start to psychoanalyze people and criminalize what they think and how they feel, "then we are crossing a very, very dangerous line," Schwartz said.
The U.S. legal tradition is clear about the sharp definitions that distinguish between lawful activities and unlawful activities, and those definitions can be made only with respect to overt acts, Schwartz said.
"An overt act is either criminal or it's not criminal. Its criminality cannot depend on the state of mind of the perpetrator or the category of identity of the victim," he said.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of Traditional Values Coalition, said the measure would silence people of faith who wanted to speak publicly on moral issues.
"The purpose of this legislation is really to use federal law to force Americans to accept homosexuality," Lafferty said.
"It also will infringe upon people's freedom of speech and their religious freedoms. We're seeing this happen in Canada, where pastors and other people cannot say that homosexuality is a sin. That is now considered a hate crime, and that is exactly what's going to happen here in the United States," she said.
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