President Obama signed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law last month. More precisely, he signed into law the fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains the hate crimes measure as a ride-along amendment. Either way it’s viewed, the measure is misnamed with respect to the hate crimes provision, as it neither provides for national defense nor adheres to principles of local law enforcement. Instead, the bill makes a federal matter out of certain violent crimes committed against individuals based on their real or perceived personal characteristics.

Future misapplication of the new hate crimes law to invite federal prosecution of individuals who express moral or religious beliefs about homosexual conduct remains a deep concern among religious and family groups, who believe that language offered by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) may not prove strong enough to prevent federal inquiries designed to chill discussions of traditional moral views.

On this point, some of the rhetoric surrounding President Obama’s signing of the bill offered scant comfort. Rather than insisting that the hate crimes law does no more than allow occasional federal assistance in cases where local resources are inadequate to ensure proper prosecution, advocates of the measure cited it as a nondiscrimination measure designed to serve as a prelude to an entire new class of civil rights law. The Washington Post hailed its signing with an air of regret that the bill does too little: “While this [the hate crimes law] is an advance, more important legislation awaits: banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation; ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, and allowing same-sex marriage.” If it looks, sounds and feels like a slippery slope . . .

Meanwhile, as Heritage Foundation Visiting Fellow Tom Messner has documented, evidence is accumulating that crimes of vandalism, physical and verbal intimidation, invasion of privacy, disruption of employment and threats of serious physical harm are occurring against people with opposing views on the merits of same-sex marriage. Even President Obama has referred to advocates of traditional marriage as seeking to “enshrine discrimination into our Constitution.” Laws have consequences, and eventually – perhaps soon – the debate over the implications of the new federal hate crimes measure will cease to be academic.