Hate Crimes Bill & Religious Freedom

Posted on July 20, 2009 In Blog

Last week, the U.S. Senate passed the federal “hate crimes bill” by attaching it to the Defense Department Authorization bill. The legislation will permit greater federal involvement in investigating hate crimes and expand the federal definition of such crimes to include those motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
Supporters say the legislation would allow federal authorities to pursue hate-crimes cases when local authorities are either unable or unwilling to do so.

The legislation has been a priority of gay rights groups, and others, for many years; and it has been correspondingly opposed by opponents of gay rights.

The Orthodox Union has remained neutral on this legislation. To be sure, we are opposed to crimes and acts of violence committed against any individual and believe perpetrators of such should be brought to justice. In the particular case of hate crimes legislation, the OU is concerned upon the legislation’s impact upon religious freedom. The bill’s proponents have gone a long way to ensure that it will not imperil religious freedom, but some concerns remain.

Thus, it is noteworthy, that in the course of the Senate’s deliberations, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) had additional religious freedom language adopted by amendment on a vote of 78-13.

The adopted amendment borrows from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and reads:

*SEC. __X. CONSTRUCTION AND APPLICATION.* Nothing in this division, or an amendment made by this division, shall be construed or applied in a manner that infringes on any rights under the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, or substantially burdens any exercise of religion (regardless of whether compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief), speech, expression, association, if such exercise of religion, speech, expression, or association was not intended to– (1) plan or prepare for an act of physical violence; or (2) incite an imminent act of physical violence against another.

It will be important and instructive to see if this language is kept in the legislation by the House-Senate conference committee, for it will be a bellwether of the hate crimes bill’s views on the intersection of religious freedom and gay rights.