House targets gay hate crimes

Posted on 30 Apr 2009 at 6:10pm
By Larry Margasak Associated Press

N.C. congresswoman infuriates gay rights supporters by calling Shepard hate crime a ‘hoax’

WASHINGTON — Gay victims of violence would gain new federal protections under a revived and expanded hate crimes bill passed by the House on Wednesday, April 29 over conservatives’ objections.

Hate crimes — as defined by the bill — are those motivated by prejudice and based on someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The bill, which passed 249-175, could provide a financial bonanza to state and local authorities, with grants for investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The federal government could step in and prosecute if states requested it or declined to exercise their authority.

A weaker bill died two years ago in the face of a veto threat from President George W. Bush.

President Barack Obama, in contrast, urged support, saying it would "enhance civil rights protections, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association."

Obama called for passage in the Senate, where Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is the chief sponsor.

The House bill added protections based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability. It is called the Mathew Shepard Hate Crimes Bill in memory of the young gay man murdered in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a supporter of the bill, contended it was the protection for gays provision that drove the opposition.

"I wonder if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were talking about hate crimes based on race or religion," she said, referring to Republican opponents. "It seems to me it is the category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the fact that we have hate crimes laws at all."

She then recounted cases where gay people were victims of violence.

The issue was personal for openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who said the bill would protect "people like me." He said he wasn’t asking for approval from people with whom he didn’t want to associate.

Answering those who said the protections were not needed, Frank quoted comedian Chico Marx: "Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?"

Current law only permits federal prosecutions against crimes based on race, religion, color or national origin — and only when the victims are engaged in federally protected activity such as voting.

The bill aroused the ire of conservative religious groups and pastors. Several Republicans argued those leaders could face criminal charges for speaking out against homosexuality or would be reluctant to state their views.

Supporters pointed to a section of the bill that protects any activities protected by the Constitution, and countered nothing would prevent speaking out.

The opponents and supporters argued strenuously over whether the bill would divide or unite Americans.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said the bill "divides America" by singling out special groups for protection.

"We should focus on the opposite, uniting America," he said. "The bill is probably unconstitutional and will be struck down" by the courts.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., countered, "We in America have said we believe all people ought to be treated equally. If America stands for anything, it stands for equality under the law."

But perhaps the opponent that made the biggest splash was Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who drew fast and furious remonstrations for her remarks during the debate.

"I also would like to point out that there was a bill — the hate crimes bill that’s called the Matthew Shepard bill is named after a very unfortunate incident that happened where a young man was killed, but we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay," Foxx said. “The bill was named for him, hate crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills."

Shepard’s mother, Judy Shepard, was sitting in the gallery watching the debate when Foxx made her remarks. Judy Shepard, since her son’s death, has been a highly visible activist in the effort to pass a federal hate crimes bill protecting LGBT people.

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