(Washington) – The Senate on Thursday approved the most sweeping expansion of federal hate crimes law since Congress responded four decades ago to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The legislation, backed by President Barack Obama, would extend federal protections granted under the 1968 hate crimes law to cover those physically attacked because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
“This bill simply recognizes that there is a difference between assaulting someone to steal his money, or doing so because he is gay, or disabled, or Latino or Muslim,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Voice vote passage came immediately after supporters cleared a 60-vote procedural hurdle imposed by Republicans trying to block consideration of the legislation. That vote was 63-28.
The hate crimes bill was offered as an amendment to a must-pass defense spending bill that the Senate is expected to finish some time next week. Several Republican amendments to the hate crimes legislation still could be considered on Monday, but Thursday’s vote determined that it will be part of the defense bill when it passes.
The 1968 hate crimes act covers violence related to a person’s race, color, religion or national origin. Federal involvement is confined to a narrow range of circumstances, such as when the victim is using a public facility or attending a public school, serving on a jury or participating in a government program.
The proposed legislation, in addition to expanding the categories covered, ends the “federally protected activities” requirement.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., now being treated for cancer and unable to be on hand for the debate, first proposed the bill in 1997. While coming close on several occasions, he has never been able to overcome opposition from those who contend it infringes on states’ rights and First Amendment rights to free speech. Former President George W. Bush said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.
This time, however, pro-bill Democrats control both houses of Congress and Obama is a strong supporter. Attorney General Eric Holder has urged Congress to give his department authority to prosecute cases of violence based on sexual orientation, gender or disability.
The measure still has a way to go. Obama has told Congress he will veto the defense bill if it includes more money for an F-22 fighter program he is trying to terminate. The House in April passed a similar hate crimes bill, but did it as independent legislation not tied to a larger bill.
The Senate bill, also sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., only authorizes federal prosecutions of hate crimes when the state or local authorities are unwilling or unable to do so. It provides $5 million in grants to state and local law enforcement officials who have trouble meeting the costs of investigating and prosecuting these crimes.
Reid, D-Nev., recalled that Laramie, Wyo., was overwhelmed by the costs of pursuing the case against Matthew Shepard, the gay college student killed in 1998 whose name is attached to the bill. “When this bill becomes law, that will never happen again in Laramie, Wyo., or anyplace else in the country.”
Supporters also emphasized that prosecutions under the bill can occur only when bodily injury is involved, and no minister or protester could be targeted for expressing opposition to homosexuality, even if their statements are followed by another person committing a violent action.
To emphasize the point, the Senate passed provisions restating that the bill does not prohibit constitutionally protected speech and that free speech is guaranteed unless it is intended to plan or prepare for an act of violence.
The Traditional Values Coalition had expressed concern in a letter to senators that a pastor could be prosecuted for “conspiracy to commit a hate crime” if a sermon resulted in a person acting aggressively against someone based on sexual orientation.
Another opponent, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said it was “patently offensive” that violence against one class of victims would be considered worse than violence against others. “We cannot have a colorblind society if we continue to write color-conscious laws,” he said. “It violates all the principles of equal justice under the law.”
Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes on their books, and about half the states have laws covering crimes based on sexual orientation.
The FBI receives reports of nearly 8,000 hate crimes every year. Of those, about 15 percent are linked to sexual orientation, which ranks third after those involving race and religion.
The Senate hate crimes bill is S. 909.