House votes to expand hate crimes law to cover gays

Measure goes to Senate in military bill

By Carl Hulse
New York Times / October 9, 2009

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WASHINGTON - The House voted yesterday to expand the definition of violent federal hate crimes to cover those committed because of a victim’s sexual orientation, a step that would extend new protection to lesbian, gay, and transgender people.

Democrats hailed the vote of 281 to 146, which brought the measure to the brink of becoming law, as the culmination of a long push to curb violent expressions of bias like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student.

“Left unchecked, crimes of this kind threaten to ruin the very fabric of America,’’ said Representative Susan A. Davis, Democrat of California, a leading supporter of the legislation.

Under current federal law, hate crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction are defined as those motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin.

The new measure would broaden the definition to include those committed because of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. It was approved by the House right before a weekend when gay rights will be a focus in Washington, with a march to the Capitol and a speech by President Obama to the Human Rights Campaign.

Republicans criticized the legislation, saying violent attacks were already illegal regardless of motive. They said the measure was an effort to create a class of “thought crimes’’ whose prosecution would require ascribing motivation to the attacker.

Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, called the legislation radical social policy. “The idea that we’re going to pass a law that’s going to add further charges to someone based on what they may have been thinking, I think is wrong,’’ Boehner said.

Republicans were also furious that the measure was attached to an essential $681 billion military policy bill, and accused Democrats of legislative blackmail.

Even some Republican members of the usually collegial House Armed Services Committee who helped write the broader legislation, which authorizes military pay, benefits, weapons programs, and other necessities for the armed forces, opposed the bill in the end, solely because of the hate crimes provision.

“We believe this is a poison pill, poisonous enough that we refuse to be blackmailed into voting for a piece of social agenda that has no place in this bill,’’ said Representative Todd Akin of Missouri, a senior Republican member of the committee.

On the final vote, 237 Democrats were joined by 44 Republicans in support of the bill; 131 Republicans and 15 Democrats opposed it. The Democratic opponents were a mix of conservatives against the hate crimes bill and liberals opposed to the Pentagon legislation.

The final Pentagon measure must still be approved by the Senate. But the hate crimes provision has solid support there, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the contents of the overall measure outweighed his own objections to including the hate crimes provision.

The hate crime provisions had passed both the House and the Senate in previous years, but the bill could never clear its final hurdles. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was fitting that Congress was acting, since Monday is the 11th anniversary of Shepard’s killing. The legislation is known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Shepard and a black man killed in a race-based attack in Texas the same year.

The hate crimes legislation allocates $5 million per year to the Justice Department to provide assistance to local communities in investigating such crimes, a process that can sometimes strain local police resources. It allows the Justice Department to assist in the inquiry and prosecution of such crimes if requested by local authorities.

“The problem of crimes motivated by bias is sufficiently serious, widespread, and interstate in nature as to warrant federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes,’’ the measure says.

Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded reports of more than 77,000 hate crimes from 1998 through 2007 and that crimes based on sexual orientation were on an upward trend.