The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday tossed out language that expanded the state's hate crime law to include "sexual orientation" and "gender identity."
The top state court upheld a November 2007 ruling by the Commonwealth Court, which had struck down the 2002 amendment as unconstitutional because it "did not retain its original purpose as it moved through the enactment process." The Commonwealth Court ruled that the statute violated the state Constitution because it was added to a bill that originally dealt with agricultural crimes.
Eleven members of a Christian evangelist group called Repent America were arrested and charged under the expanded "ethnic intimidation" law in 2004 for picketing at a Philadelphia event for homosexuals.
Although the charges were later dropped, Repent America director Michael Marcavage and six other members challenged the law.
Marcavage praised the Supreme Court's decision.
"Having been arrested, jailed and charged with a 'hate crime' for preaching the Gospel, I am elated that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling in striking down Pennsylvania's expanded 'hate crimes' law," he said in a statement.
Marcavage pledged that his group will remain vigilant as they expect state lawmakers to make another attempt at passing a "hate crimes" law.
"The methods used by the Pennsylvania legislature in passing the 'hate crimes' bill were extremely devious and yet another chilling example as to how far politicians are willing to go to silence Christian speech that they would violate our own state Constitution to do it."
Members of Congress have also considered expanding federal hate crime laws to include "sexual orientation." The House of Representatives passed its version of The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act in May 2007. A similar bill was also introduced in the Senate last year.
A large majority of critics of the legislation are pastors and religious leaders who argue that the hate-crime laws would infringe on their freedom of speech and incriminate them for expressing their moral views on issues such as homosexuality.
A pastor who delivered a sermon telling his congregation that homosexuality is a sin could be held accountable for a hate crime if someone commits a crime against a homosexual person after hearing his sermon, religious leaders say.
Since the motive behind a hate crime could only be proved by showing that the suspect had hateful thoughts against a particular group of people when he committed the crime, critics say the legislation would criminalize thoughts.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore of Foundation for Moral Law, which represented the members of Repent America in the case, said he was happy that in this case the court prevented "corrupt politicians" from sneaking the law into the state Constitution.
"Preaching to homosexuals about the sin of sodomy should not be made a 'thought crime' in Pennsylvania or any other state."