They meant to make it easier to discriminate against gays, but instead they passed a bill making it easier to discriminate against Christians and other religious groups.
The Oklahoma Senate two weeks ago voted in favor of a bill that it thought was going to reduce protections for gay people by allowing local law enforcement agencies to ignore the expanded hate crimes law passed by the US Congress last year.
But, as the University of Oklahoma’s Oklahoma Daily reported last week, the Oklahoma bill cited the wrong clause in the federal code, and instead prevented law enforcement from upholding laws against hate crimes based on religion, race or ethnicity.
Eliminating protection for religious groups is pretty much the exact opposite of what the bill’s supporters had intended.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The bill in its current form doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t take away rights from gays and lesbians,Ã¢â‚¬Â state Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice told Oklahoma Daily. “It takes away rights for religion and race.”
In October 2009, President Obama signed into law a change to the US’s protections against hate crimes that expanded protection to cover people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
That law, known as The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was opposed by some lawmakers in Oklahoma who feared it would “trample on the free speech rights of religious leaders who preached out against the lifestyle of the victim who was attacked,” notes the Out in Oklahoma City blog.
But “in trying to strip gays and lesbians of protection, the Oklahoma State Senate inadvertently cited the wrong section of the US code,” reports Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress. “The bill stripped rights under Title 18 US Code Section 245, but protections for sexual orientation and gender identity is actually under Section 249.”
Section 245 protects people against hate crimes on the basis of “race, color, religion or national origin.” Thus the very same religious leaders who worried that the federal hate crimes statute would criminalize their opinions are now in danger of losing hate-crimes protection themselves.
The mistake was “most likely a legislative error or at least a typo,” Rice, a Democrat, told the Oklahoma Daily.
Republican State Senator Steve Russell, the bill’s author, has said the bill will be changed before it comes before the state House for a vote.
Not surprisingly, the bill came under attack from Oklahoma’s gay rights groups when it passed the state Senate two weeks ago.
The bill “leaves LGBT Oklahomans no legal recourse if they are victims of hate crimes,” The Equality Network said in a statement earlier this month.
The bill “also prevents law enforcement officials from asking for federal assistance in enforcing the LGBT-inclusive federal hate crimes law. The bill does not seek to repeal federal or state hate crimes protections accorded on the basis of race, national origin, religion, or disability. Instead, it intentionally excludes only hate crimes perpetrated on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” TEN stated.
According to news reports, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry has not yet decided if he will veto the bill or sign it if it comes to his desk.