Judge Declares Hate Crimes Amendment Covering Gays Unconstitutional

A state court struck down amendments to Pennsylvania's version of a hate crime law Thursday, declaring the statutes that cover crimes committed with bias against sexual orientation unconstitutional.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled 4-1 against the enactment of the 2002 amendment because it did not retain the original purpose of a bill that addressed agricultural vandalism and crop destruction.

Judge James Gardner Colins wrote in the majority opinion that the court agreed with petitioners that HB 1493 "did not retain its original purpose as it moved through the enactment process," thus violating Article III of the state Constitution.

He declared the provision "unconstitutional and therefore null and void."

President Judge Bonnie Leadbetter dissented, but did not issue an opinion explaining why.

The court's decision was based more on a procedural issue regarding the passage of amendment rather than on the constitutionality of adding "sexual orientation" as a protected class under the law.

Still, the ruling was declared a victory for members of Repent America (RA), a conservative Christian group known for holding protests outside public events for gays and lesbians. Eleven members of the group, which believes homosexuality is a sin, were arrested in 2004 for picketing at a Philadelphia event for homosexuals called "OutFest."

Although charges were later dropped or dismissed, according to RA, seven members of the organization filed a lawsuit in 2005 to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment used to charge them with a felony.

The group praised the court's decision.

"The Court rightly found that there was no logical or legal connection between trampling down a hay field and assaulting someone on the basis of sexual orientation," said the group's attorney Aaron Martin in a statement Thursday.

"This is a victory for constitutional government, so let us be thankful," stated RA director Michael Marcavage Thursday.

It was not immediately clear whether Gov. Ed Rendell's administration or the Legislature would appeal.

Rendell urged lawmakers in a statement to immediately pass "appropriate legislation" reinstating the measure. He noted that the law would also protect "religious minorities."

Conservative Christian groups, however, believe such hate-crime laws would infringe on their freedom of speech and incriminate them for expressing their moral views on issues such as homosexuality.

Many are closely watching an advancing federal legislation that would add "sexual orientation" to a list of federally protected classes under a 1964 act that prohibits job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

The Employment Non-discrimination Act, which was passed by the House last week, is set to be introduced in the U.S. Senate. The White House has pledge a veto from President Bush if it makes it to his desk.