Oklahoma Senate Votes to Opt Out of U.S. Hate Law

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 12, 2010

The Oklahoma state senate has approved a bill that would allow the state to "opt out" of the first federal law to extend hate crimes protections to LGBTs.

Oklahoma State Senator Steve Russell sponsored an amendment to a bill that empowers the state to destroy information relevant to hate crimes investigations, rather than sharing that information with federal authorities. Russell's justification for this was that he wanted to avoid a situation in which federal officials took a case out of the jurisdiction of local law enforcement.

Russell also worried that The Matthew Shepard James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law by President Obama last year, might be used to prosecute Christians who speak out against gays because of their religious convictions. Though the measure includes guarantees designed to protect First Amendment freedoms, opponents have blasted the Act for creating a new class of "thought crimes," and worried that the law would be used to suppress religious expression, including readings of anti-gay Biblical passages.

Religious and conservative pundits lost no time following President Obama's Oct. 28, 2009 signing of the bill into law. Anti-gay religious site OneNewsNow posted an article that same day warning that Christian broadcasting companies feared the law could be used to squelch anti-gay content. The article quoted Craig Parshall, a lawyer for National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) as saying that the broadcasting of anti-gay rhetoric that inspires in individual to attack an LGBT person might lead to charges against the broadcaster.

Parshall also made use of frequently employed argument that children might be "indoctrinated" by gays, saying, "Public school curriculum could be built entirely on the idea of what is illegal hate in our culture.... And our children could be indoctrinated [to believe that] if you criticize another religion or mention Jesus as being the only way, that's hateful--[or] if you say that homosexuality is a sin, that's hateful." The article went on to say that Parshall regarded the law as designed to silence Christians and squelch dissent toward the gay "lifestyle."

Alliance Defense Fund lawyer Erik Stanley echoed that interpretation in an Oct. 28 article at anti-gay site WorldNetDaily, saying, "Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime.... The bottom line is that we do not need a law that creates second-class victims in America and that gives the government the opportunity to ignore the First Amendment."

Russell spoke out against the federal hate crimes protections provided by the law, which provides funding for hate crimes investigations that the state will lose if the bill is passed. "The bill gives the federal government power that was not given to them in the Constitution," Russell said, according to a March 12 article at Out In Tulsa.com. "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," Russell added. "We just have to be very careful on how we proceed."

Russell: Necrophilia an "Orientation"

Russell also questioned the federal law's protection of GLBT Americans targeted for violent crimes on the basis of their sexual orientation. "Sexual orientation is a very vague word that could be extended to extremes like necrophilia," Russell said, reported Pandagon.com on March 11.

The measure passed the state senate 39-6 and is now headed for the Oklahoma house. Less definitive has been lawmaker support for a proposed law designed to reduce heterosexual divorce in the state, which denies family parity to gays and lesbians. The Associated Press reported in a March 8 article that lawmakers were sharply divided regarding a measure that would require heterosexual couples wishing to wed to get counseling before tying the knot. The same measure would require divorcing couples to undergo marriage counseling before the divorce could proceed.

While some state lawmakers pointed to Oklahoma's highest-in-the-nation divorce rate as justification for the measure, others rejected it on principle, saying that there was no need to involve the government in the domestic affairs of (heterosexual) couples. "How far do I want government to come into my home and your home about private personal matters?" asked Rep. Leslie Osborne, a Republican.

But fellow Republican State Rep. Mark McCullough said that the measure "could very well satisfy a compelling government interest. It's a terrible crisis."

Oklahoma lawmakers have made headlines in recent years for their anti-gay stances. State Rep. Sally Kern told a gathering in 2008 that gays pose a threat to America, saying that historically, nations that accepted gays "lasted [no] more than a few decades," and declaring that America's tolerance of homosexuals constitutes a "death knell of our country."

Kern also claimed that gays and lesbians were "the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism of Islam," and said that "gays are infiltrating city councils.... They are winning elections."

Also in 2008, then-Oklahoma County Commissioner Brent Rhinehart, who had been charged with campaign funding violations, co-created a comic book that he then sent to voters in a bid to hold on to his office. The comic depicted Rhinehart as locked in a struggle against evil, with an angel cheering him on to victory at the ballot box while gays, depicted as the pawns of Satan, worked against him.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.