Congress is gearing toward the passage of an expansion to the federal hate crime law that would encompass attacks motivated by the victims' gender or sexual orientation. The president - for only the third time in his presidency - has threatened to veto it.
With strong backing from the Democratic majority, it looks like President Bush has yet another bill coming to his desk that doesn't fit his agenda. It will only be the third one to be sent back to Congress, but the president is currently at a perfect 2-2, having successfully defeated the recent troop-funding bill that called for a withdrawal timetable, and last year's federally funded stem-cell research bill. It is likely he'll go 3-3 if the Democrats can’t get enough Republicans to back the "Hate Crimes Prevention Act."
Today the conservative National Review Online posted an editorial echoing the fears of opponents that the strengthen law would obstruct free speech (emphasis added):
Many proponents of hate-crimes laws profess to have no desire to move against free speech. But we fear that it may be a short jump from prosecuting "hate crimes" to prosecuting "hate speech." It is true that the law routinely looks into defendants' motives, and that some motives tend to draw tougher sentences than others. But our social divisions, especially over homosexuality, make it especially dangerous for the law to inquire into defendants' prejudices—and "prejudices." We want to deter and punish crimes against blacks, women, homosexuals, and everyone else. But we do not want to open the door to legal punishment for harboring incorrect thoughts about controversial issues—especially when those incorrect thoughts are part of the historic teaching of our major religions.Yes it sounds like the National Review just admitted religion is possibly responsible for the so-called homophobia that inspires crimes against homosexuals and that the preservation of traditional religious teachings (albeit "wrong") justifies the potential consequences.
It's not the easiest position to defend but it's the right one and there are plenty of reasons to oppose federal hate-crime legislation. The "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" sounds like a good idea when you read it, but if our current murder prevention laws don't prevent people from committing murder, can we really expect this legislation to change the minds of the perpetrators who are going to do it but for racist reasons?
But the "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" shouldn't just be opposed because it's not going to prevent anything, it should be opposed primary because Congress has no business legislating our thoughts - however bigoted they may be. Punishing someone harder for committing a likewise offense as someone else but for "hateful" purposes is a violation of the First Amendment's free speech clause and maybe even the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, and would probably not pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court.
Such legislation would artificially inflate the value of some classes by denying justice to others; say, by making the punishment harsher when the victim (in a rare circumstance) is of a different color or sexual orientation. And because the majority of crimes are intra-racial and between members of the same sexual orientation, the "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" only intends to serve a minority of victims.
To be sure, we do have ways of punishing criminals based on their motives and other factors that led them to committing the crime. After a decision to convict in a criminal trial the jury gets to weigh the mitigating and aggravating circumstances of the crime and sets the punishment accordingly. Sometimes the law restricts how much freedom juries and judges have but they usually have the discretion to tack on additional punishment, especially when the crime is particularly heinous.
The "Hate Crimes Prevention Act" and similar laws are fruitless, unnecessary, and will only increase President Bush's veto winning streak.
UPDATE: The House has passed the bill by a vote of 237-180.