Why GOP Leader Opposes Hate Crimes Protections for Gays

(AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)
Last week, House Republican Leader John Boehner objected to House passage of a bill that would expand hate crime laws and make it a federal crime to assault people on the basis of their sexual orientation.

"All violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously, no matter what the circumstance," he said. "The Democrats' 'thought crimes' legislation, however, places a higher value on some lives than others. Republicans believe that all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance."

Based on that statement, CBSNews.com contacted Boehner's office to find out if the minority leader opposes all hate crimes legislation. The law as it now stands offers protections based on race, color, religion and national origin.

In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner "supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics."

It should be noted that the current law does not include gender, though the expanded legislation would cover gender as well as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

"He does not support adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes," Smith continued.

Boehner's position, then, appears to be grounded in the notion that immutable characteristics should be protected under hate crimes laws. And while religion is an immutable characteristic, his office suggests, sexual orientation is not.

Northeastern University professor Jack Levin, who co-authored the first book written about hate crimes, told Hotsheet that "to use immutability as a criterion doesn't make any sense at all."

"Especially if he supports the current stand," Levin continued. "Religion is clearly not ascribed. It's not built into the organism. People can change it at any time and people do."

"It sounds to me as though the criticism is focused on the addition of gays and lesbians to the list of protected categories at the federal level," he said. "That seems to be the problem."

Rep. Tom Price, who heads the GOP conservative caucus, also complained last week that the expansion of hate crimes legislation amounted to "thought crimes," and he labeled the bill's passage – tied to a defense bill – an "absolute disgrace."

But contacted about his position on hate crimes legislation overall, Price took a different position than Boehner. According to Price communications director Brendan Buck, the congressman opposes all hate crimes protections, including existing ones.

"We believe all hate crimes legislation is unconstitutional and places one class of people above others," said Buck.

CBSNews.com also reached out to the Republican National Committee for comment, though the RNC did not respond by publication time.

If someone is convicted of a hate crime, they are subject to punishment beyond what they would have otherwise received. The expanded federal law would eliminate requirements that victims of hate crimes be engaged in a certain activity to qualify for protection (such as being a juror). It would also provide grants for the prosecution of hate crimes and allow the federal government to help local authorities in hate crimes investigations.

In his email, Boehner spokesman Smith also offered another reason for Boehner's opposition to the expanded hate crime legislation.

The bill, he said, "could eventually invite the prosecution of Americans for their thoughts and religious beliefs, basic provinces protected by the First Amendment."

While changes were made to the bill to strengthen protections for religious speech, critics complained that religious leaders could still be prosecuted under it should their sermons be seen as having incited violence. Smith complained that Democrats added new language to the bill "to permit the government to 'substantially burden' a person's exercise of religion in 'furtherance of a compelling governmental interest' if certain conditions are met."

Constitutional requirements dictate that the laws have to cover every type of person within a group – that is, straights as well as gays, whites as well as blacks, Christians as well as Jews, and so on. Federal Bureau of Investigation hate crimes statistics show that hate crimes were committed against whites, Christians and heterosexuals in 2007, though they were far more likely to be committed against members of minority groups.

Levin, the hate crimes expert at Northeastern, argued that hate crimes legislation doesn't amount to a takeover by the "thought police" because hate speech remains protected under the first amendment.

He believes that hate crimes legislation can legitimately take intent into account – for example, homophobic slurs shouted by someone committing an assault.

"We've always used, in criminal law, what a defendant said in order to determine the severity of the punishment," Levin said. "This is nothing new. If you by your words indicate that you've planned a murder, it will be regarded as first degree."

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