(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Senate on Tuesday voted to expand "hate crimes" legislation to cover crimes that target people because of their sexual orientation, gender, or disability.
The measure, an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2005 Defense authorization bill, was co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). It passed on a vote of 65-33, with all Democrats and 18 Republicans voting in favor of it.
Liberal groups praised the vote, while conservatives criticized it.
Concerned Women for America, a conservative public policy organization, warned that the amendment lays the groundwork for the persecution of Christians, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and others who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds.
"Using similar laws, the mere criticism of homosexuality is considered a 'hate crime' in Sweden and Canada," said Robert Knight, director of CWA's Culture and Family Institute.
"The idea of a 'hate crime' is completely contrary to the American principles of free speech and equal protection under the law. Any senator who voted for this is setting up our children and grandchildren for persecution as activist courts rule that biblical morality is 'bigotry.'
CWA says hate crimes laws aren't about justice; "they are about favoritism and special rights."
As an example, CWA said under the amendment passed Tuesday, the penalty for mugging a homosexual would be greater than that for mugging someone's grandmother. "Under a hate crimes law, someone who mugs your grandmother will not be prosecuted as vigorously as someone who commits the same crime against a homosexual. This says to criminals: 'Mug Grandma; It's less risky,'" CWA said.
Homosexual advocacy groups praised the vote, however:
The National Stonewall Democrats, which describes itself as the "only national organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Democrats," applauded those lawmakers who "rejected the divisive politics of the Republican leadership."
The Stonewall Democrats said the federal government must prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation the same way it prosecutes bias-motivated crimes based on religion, race and other characteristics.
"The legislation voted on today by the U.S. Senate would ensure that these crimes are prosecuted by the federal government with equity," the Stonewall Democrats said in a press release.
The bill passed on Tuesday would allow the federal government to provide state and local law enforcement agencies with same resources used in the prosecution of other bias-motivated crimes.
Since being introduced in 1997, hate crimes legislation has gained "significant support" in the United States Senate, the Stonewall Democrats said. The group noted that three Republicans - Robert Bennett of Utah, Ben Campbell of Colorado and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire - voted for the measure on Tuesday, after voting against similar legislation in 2000.
But as pleased as they are, the National Stonewall Democrats believe the measure passed on Tuesday doesn't go far enough because it fails to explicitly address bias-motivated crimes that target transgender individuals.
The Human Rights Campaign praised the Senate for taking an "important step toward giving law enforcement the tools they need to investigate and prosecute hate crimes."
According to HRC President Cheryl Jacques, "Hate crimes are perpetrated by criminals trying to divide Americans," and she said such "heinous crimes" must be "fully prosecuted."
Jacques also expressed concern that some lawmakers may have voted for the hate crimes amendment as a way of "inoculating" themselves against a future vote in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment. It won't work, Jacques warned.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, sexual orientation bias represents the third highest category of reported hate crimes, based on the most recent FBI statistics.
"Law enforcement organizations are urging passage of this bill and today the Senate delivered again," said Jacques.
Concerned Women for America also noticed that the "Senate delivered again," and the group is not happy about it.
"This is more proof that while being Republican led, the Senate is not a conservative body. We will rely on the House leadership to keep this harmful language from reaching the President's desk, and we will encourage our members to look at their senators' votes on this bill as they consider who they will support and oppose in November."
Liberal groups are urging lawmakers to retain the amendment when the Defense authorization bill is reconciled in a conference committee. Conservative groups are urging lawmakers to strip the amendment from the final Defense authorization bill.
On two previous occasions, a similar measure has been removed from the final bill.
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