- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker yesterday signed legislation that gives homosexuals statewide legal protection from verbal harassment and hate crimes a move that critics argue targets church leaders who preach against the homosexual lifestyle.
Critics said that they fear the law could be enforced too liberally to include pastors, preachers and other church leaders who during their sermons often quote passages from the Bible that denounce homosexuality. As a result, the law would then violate the church leaders' free speech rights and religious liberties.
"Those especially at risk are conservative religious people who may very well find themselves hauled into court unless they keep their mouths shut for being politically incorrect," said Laurel Lynn Petolicchio, a constitutional activist from Columbia, Pa.
"This legislation basically sets up for a lawsuit against any minister or religious leader who publicly states that certain sexual behavior is immoral or improper. That is in direct violation of the state Constitution."
Many pastors in the state agree. "If the legislation hints in the slightest of grounds for a lawsuit against a preacher, we fear that it will be greatly taken advantage of, to the point of abuse," said Jerry O'Donnell, president of the "Thus Saith The Lord" Ministries in Harrisburg, Pa. Mr. O'Donnell said that he is looking into getting insured against any legal actions he may face.
The legislation adds the phrase "ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity" to the state's Ethnic Intimidation law. The existing law calls for longer jail terms and higher fines for crimes motivated by hatred against victims because of race, color, religion or national origin.
The additional language means that someone convicted of attacking a homosexual because of his sexual orientation would face a longer jail term and stiffer fines, just as a person does now for targeting a racial minority.
"By signing this legislation, I am joining the General Assembly in sending a strong, clear message that Pennsylvania will not tolerate violence against anyone period," said Mr. Schweiker, a Republican.
The legislation was drafted by Philadelphia-based Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights (CLGCR) and supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. The state House last week passed the measure 118-79, and the state Senate passed it 32-15 last year.
Opponents argued that the measure violates the "equal justice for all" principle.
"We should be looking at the crime, not trying to decide what the thoughts were of the perpetrator," said state Rep. Allan Egolf, a Republican who voted against the measure. "What we're doing is stripping away the blindfold on Lady Justice who doesn't see the person who committed the crime but is only considering the facts."
Advocates of the measure said that Pennsylvania now has the most inclusive legislation of its kind in the country and hailed it as a "breakthrough for principles of tolerance and social justice."
"This is important to gays and lesbians because the state legislators who voted for this bill made a statement that they will not tolerate violence towards their most vulnerable constituents," said Stacey Sobel, CLGCR's executive director.
Supporters also said the measure in no way punishes religious leaders.
Kathleen Daugherty, director of Harrisburg-based Lutheran Advocacy Ministry, which supports the measure, said that the law is meant to give law-enforcement authorities extra tools to prosecute those who attack homosexuals, not to take away the free speech rights of preachers and church leaders.
"What a minister is doing is not a crime," she said. "This measure is about the people who go after persons like Matthew Shepard and harm them. Pennsylvania needs to make a statement that we will not tolerate hate."
Mr. Shepard was a homosexual college student killed by local men in Wyoming in October 1998.
But others argue that it's their values that are being trampled.
"Not only are you not allowed to speak it, you're now not allowed to think it, and that's dangerous," said the Rev. Frederick Bieber of the Hanoverdale Church of the Brethren near Hummelstown, Pa.
"My concern is that it brings about what Christ spoke about how Christians are going to be hauled off and slaughtered for their beliefs, and that's what the supporters of this measure are bringing on. That's the only way they're going to shut me up anyway."


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