WASHINGTON -- Just hours after the White House issued a veto threat yesterday, the House voted to add gender and sexual orientation to the categories covered by federal hate crimes law.
The House legislation, passed 237 to 180, also makes it easier for federal law enforcement to take part in or assist local prosecutions involving bias-motivated attacks. Similar legislation is also moving through the Senate, setting the stage for another veto showdown with President Bush.
"This is an important vote of conscience, of a statement of what America is, a society that understands that we accept differences," said Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland and the House majority leader.
Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, the only openly gay man in the House, presided over the chamber as the final vote was taken.
The vote was taken after fierce lobbying from civil rights groups, who have been pushing for years for added protections against hate crimes, and social conservatives, who say the bill threatens the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality and singles out groups for special protection.
The White House, in a statement warning of a veto, said state and local laws cover the new crimes defined under the bill, and there was "no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement."
It also said the bill would leave other classes, such as the elderly, the military, and police officers, without similar special status.
"Our criminal justice system has been built on the ideal of equal justice for all," said Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "Under this bill justice will no longer be equal, but depend on the race, sex, sexual orientation, disability, or status of the victim."
Republicans, in a parliamentary move that would have effectively killed the bill, tried to add seniors and the military to those qualifying for hate crimes protection. It was defeated on a mainly party-line vote.
Hate crimes under federal law apply to acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin . Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction only if the victim is engaged in a specific federally-protected activity such as voting.
The House bill would extend the hate crimes category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability and give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crimes investigations. It would approve $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crimes prosecutions.
Federal investigators could step in if local authorities are unwilling or unable to act. The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay-rights group, said this federal intervention could have made a difference in the case of Brandon Teena, the young Nebraska transsexual depicted in the movie "Boys Don't Cry," who was raped after two friends discovered he was biologically female and then killed when local police did not arrest those responsible.
But Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, warned that the intent of the bill was "to muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality." If you read the Bible in a certain way, he told his broadcast listeners, "you may be guilty of committing a 'thought crime.' "
"It does not impinge on public speech or writing in any way," countered John Conyers, Judiciary Committee chairman and Democrat of Michigan, saying the bill explicitly reaffirms First Amendment and free speech rights.
Conyers said in a statement that state and local authorities will continue to prosecute the majority of such cases and that the bill would require a high-ranking Justice Department official to approve any federal prosecutions.