(CNSNews.com) - The House is set to vote on a measure that would advance a controversial hate crimes bill already passed in the Senate. The bill would include sexual orientation in the categories protected under federal hate crimes law, according to sources on Capitol Hill.
Opponents argue that the legislation singles out some victims as more important than others and is intended to advance the agenda of homosexual groups in the United States.
Last June by a 57-42 vote, the Senate passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2000 that expands federal penalties for crimes based on race, sex, religion or sexual orientation, and funds hundreds of diversity and tolerance programs in public schools.
The bill, offered as an amendment to the unrelated Defense Appropriations bill, was sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA). The House version of that bill does not include the hate crimes legislation.
However, the House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a motion to instruct House conferees currently hashing out a compromise bill to accept the Senate's hate crime language. The vote was scheduled for Tuesday night but was put off by the House leadership.
"This will put the House on record as supporting the language, which is one giant step closer to making it law," said a Capitol Hill staff member who is working to have the language removed from the conference bill.
Opponents of the language say there is little need for hate crimes legislation, and that the legislation creates special categories of victims, which "denies equal protection under the law," according to Robert Knight of the Family Research Council.
According to Department of Justice data, there were 8,759 "bias-motivated" criminal incidents in 1996, slightly more than two one-hundredths of one percent of the 37 million total crimes committed in the US that year.
"Hate-crime legislation creates a hierarchy of victims, so it's saying that if [a crime] happens to one person, it's more important than if it happens to someone else," said Yvette Schneider, a domestic policy analyst at the Family Research Council.
Under the hate crimes bill, rape would not be considered a hate crime unless it was motivated by gender discrimination, but almost any crime against a homosexual would trigger federal penalties, said Schneider.
The legal ambiguities demonstrate how hate crime laws can be used to advance political, rather than legal concerns, say many legal analysts.
Hadley Arkes, the Ney professor of constitutional law at Amherst University in Massachusetts, maintains that "some words can be a form of assault; so-called 'fighting words.'" Nonetheless, he accuses 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," said Arkes, "even things like burning a cross as a form of protest, then how do you criminalize some forms of speech?"
Many conservatives are also concerned that hate crimes legislation, which includes millions of dollars in funding for public school-based "diversity" programs, would denigrate or attack students' religious beliefs concerning homosexuality.
"What the Clinton administration is trying to do with these programs is to disparage Christianity," said Andrea Sheldon, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, which has lobbied against the bills. "We're seeing this on a whole host of fronts, whether it's telling fifth graders that Baptists and Pentecostals are perpetrators of hate, or ignoring religion as a part of culture."
Many conservatives feel that hate crime legislation - and the federal funding for tolerance programs in schools that is a part of the Kennedy bill - is an attempt to normalize homosexuality in education curricula.
"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," said the Rev. Robert Schenck, general secretary of the National Clergy Council.