In Slipup, Anti-Gay Okla. Lawmakers Vote to Strip Race, Religion Protections

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday March 30, 2010

Lawmakers in Oklahoma were so determined not to cooperate with federal officials investigating hate crimes targeting gays and lesbians that they voted for a bill requiring that police files and other documents be kept from federal investigators.

But the Oklahoma State Senate referenced the wrong section of the penal code; lawmakers ended up voting to strip away hate crimes protections relevant to race and religion, not sexual orientation or sexual identity, according to a March 29 press release from the non-partisan Center for American Progress.

The lawmakers' action have their origins in President Obama's signing last October of a bill that added GLBT-specific protections to a 1969 hate crimes protection law. Though the law only provides for federal investigation and prosecution of violence crime, anti-gay Christians insisted that the bill could be used to prosecute preachers and others who condemned gays out of a religious belief that homosexuality is "wrong" or "sinful."

Moreover, the bill's sponsor, State Sen. Steve Russell, offered a further justification in saying that he wanted to avoid a situation in which federal officials took a case out of the jurisdiction of local law enforcement.

The Republican-dominated Oklahoma State Senate took action based on that claim, voting on Mar. 10 to approve a state law that prohibits "local and state law enforcement agencies from sharing information about hate crimes with federal authorities if the state of Oklahoma did not recognize the crime as a hate crime by its own statutes." Since Oklahoma state law does not extend hate crimes protections to GLBTs, the seeming intention was to strip gays in Oklahoma of federal protections.

"But in trying to strip LGBT Oklahomans of their rights, the Oklahoma State Senate inadvertently cited the wrong section of the U.S. code and allowed state law enforcement officials to keep crimes motivated by race or religion out of the hands of federal authorities," the press release said. "The bill stripped protections under Title 18 U.S. Code Section 245, but protections for sexual orientation and gender identity are actually under Section 249." Section 850 of Title 21 of the Oklahoma Statutes.

"The bill in its current form doesn't take away rights from gays and lesbians," said Oklahoma State Senate Minority Leader Andrew Rice. "It takes away rights for religion and race." Added Rice, "Gay and lesbian citizens should be upset because someone tried to take their rights away, but minority groups should be concerned that their rights have already been voted to be taken away by the Senate. People who consider themselves Jewish, black, even Christians should be outraged."

It is expected that Oklahoma state senators will amend the bill to restore protections regarding race and religion, and take away protections for gays, before the bill goes on to the Oklahoma house.

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.