Oklahoma Lawmaker Considering Bill To Opt Out Of Hate Crimes Act

A common right-wing objection to federal health care legislation is that it's unconstitutional. So-called "tenthers" argue that the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution never explicitly gives the federal government the right to regulate health care, leaving that power exclusively in the hands of the states. To that end, officials in various states have raised the possibility of passing legislation to exempt their residents from federal health care reform if it passes.

Oklahoma state Sen. Steve Russell (R) is proposing to use the same argument and tactic to try to exempt his state from the recently-passed Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act — which extends hate crimes protections to gays and lesbians — because he claims it infringes on freedom of speech:

Russell said because the government has decided to intervene on issues of morality, he is worried that religious leaders who speak out against any lifestyle could be imprisoned for their speech.

"The law is very vague to begin with," Russell said. "Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia." [...]

Russell said Oklahoma can opt out of the law on the basis of the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"The bill gives the federal government power that was not given to them in the Constitution," Russell said. "I am aware of the supremacy of the federal government over state governments, but the federal requirements are vague enough for us to make actions. We just have to be very careful on how we proceed."

Hate crime protections have been on the books since 1969, but Russell seems to object to only those which protect gays and lesbians. Moreover, Russell and the other tenthers have flimsly legal basis for their claims. The Constitution gives Congress broad power to "provide for the common defense and general welfare," but as Ian Millhiser noted, tenthers "insist that these words don't actually mean what they say." The right-wing fringe believes landmark federal programs such as Medicare, Social Security, the federal highway system, and rules regulating airplane safety are unconstitutional.

Other right wingers have echoed Russell's concern about the new hate crimes bill: Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said on the House floor that the measure would lead to Nazism and the legalization of pedophilia and necrophilia. But as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) said, "Nothing in this legislation diminishes an American's freedom of religion, freedom of speech or press or the freedom to assemble," because the law "targets acts, not speech." These acts need to be targeted. In 2007 — the most recent year for which data is available — 16.6 percent of all hate crimes reported reported to the FBI "resulted from sexual-orientation bias."

Update If Oklahoma wants to refuse federal funds to fight hate crimes, it has the right to do so. However, Russell is trying to have it both ways -- accept the federal funds and refuse to apply them for their intended purpose:
When asked about whether the state of Oklahoma should reject the $5 million in federal funds that the federal government would give to law enforcement agencies to help prosecute hate crimes, Russell said he thought about finding a way to pass his law while taking the money, but said it would be a compromise in the values of his bill. "I understand the state could use all the money it can get, but we can't compromise our values for some quick cash," Russell said.

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