Emotions run high at hate-crime bill hearing

Posted on 26 Jan 2009 at 11:58am
By By Kahrin Deines Associated Press

Gays tell personal stories of impact of hate crimes; religious opponents say law could impair their freedom of speech

HELENA, Mont. — Impassioned testimony on proposed hate-crime legislation was offered in a hearing Jan. 22.

Supporters urged lawmakers to ensure that vulnerable groups are not targeted for violence; and opponents countered the bill could threaten their religious expression.

The legislation sponsored by Democratic Sen. Carol Juneau of Browning would extend protection from "malicious intimidation" to those attacked on the basis of sexual orientation, gender expression, gender or disability.

The law already increases penalties in crimes where victims are targeted because of race, creed, color, national origin or religion. But Juneau said other vulnerable groups also need to be protected. She exhorted her fellow lawmakers to consider the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s calls for equality in these days following his birthday.

"We as Americans over the years changed because of his efforts," Juneau said. "We created laws such as this one we have before us today."

Human rights advocates, church leaders, and women’s rights representatives testified in favor of the new hate-crime designation. But the most fervent testimony came from individuals who shared their personal experiences with violence and harassment.

Randy Cochran, a Colorado resident, spoke of being beaten outside a Miles City bar during a 2007 business trip. He said he was assaulted for being gay, and believes the proposed legislation could censure violent expressions of hatred.

"The physical injuries healed, but the emotional injuries are very honestly still healing and will be for the rest of my life," Cochran said.

On the other side of the issue, some Christian groups offered passionate testimony against the bill, saying it would criminalize their religious expression, and claiming it caters to a "homosexual lobby."

Opponents also argued the state’s constitution already guarantees equal protection to all.

"By its very nature it sets up a two-tiered situation, where one segment of the population receives more protection than other persons," said Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation and a former legislator.

The Legislature considered expanding hate-crime protections during the 2007 session, but the bill was defeated.

Committee Chair Sen. Gary Perry, R-Manhattan, declined to comment on the current bill’s chances of passing the committee and going to the full Senate. Democratic Rep. Franke Wilmer of Bozeman said the Democratic Women’s Caucus will support the measure.

The bill is Senate Bill 223.

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