Senate Backs Stronger Hate Crime Protections
By REUTERS from the NYTimes on the Web, June 15, 2004
WASHINGTON -- Legislation to strengthen 1960s-era federal hate crime law and
broaden it to cover gay people and the disabled overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.
The legislation was passed by a 65-33 vote as an amendment to a defense bill.
Backers hope the large bipartisan margin will ensure the measure
remains part of the bill after negotiations with the House of Representatives.
The House, which has been less sympathetic to the hate crimes legislation, did not include hate crimes in its version of the defense bill.
Eighteen Republicans joined all the Senate Democrats present to pass the measure expanding current law, which deals with crimes motivated by race,
religion or national origin.
"I think a lot of people have gotten educated about this," said Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who sponsored the bill with Sen. Edward
Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and has been working for several years for its passage.
Smith said anyone who opposed protecting gay people from violence citing
"family values" was espousing "counterfeit" family values.
"I can see no family value that is served by tolerance of discrimination," he told
Backers of the legislation, a top priority for gay rights and disabled advocacy groups, have been trying to enact it since at least 1998, when the
gaps in existing law were highlighted by two heinous crimes -- the dragging death of a black man named James Byrd in Texas and the fatal beating of a
young gay man named Matthew Shepard in Wyoming.
In addition to adding protections for gays and the disabled, the legislation also modernizes and streamlines earlier hate crime legislation enacted after
the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The goal is to make it easier to prosecute such crimes.
How the hate crimes vote dovetails politically with the drive to ban gay marriage is not yet clear.
Smith, one of the most vocal Republican voices on
hate crime protections for gays, does not support gay marriage. Kennedy does.
"These are two separate votes," said Cheryl Jacques, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay rights lobby.
She called the hate crimes
vote "terrific" but said she hopes everyone who voted for it approaches
the marriage issue by "understanding the need to treat all Americans
Backers of the Smith-Kennedy measure cited a growing problem with hate crimes, including a surge of violence against both Muslims and Jews after
the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Federal statistics show 7,400 hate crimes were reported in the United States in 2002, the last year for which data are
available. Seventeen percent involved sexual orientation.
"Like acts of terrorism, hate crimes have an impact far greater than their impact on the individual
victim," Kennedy said. "They are crimes against entire communities, against the whole nation and against the fundamental
ideals on which America was founded."
Smith said it was appropriate to link the hate crimes amendment to the defense bill because many of the crimes involved military personnel
attacking fellow soldiers or sailors.
Opposing the legislation, Republicans Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said they thought hate crimes were better dealt
with on a local rather than federal level.