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Senate Prepares Vote On Hate Crime Legislation

The Evening Bulletin | July 17, 2007

With Iraq taking center stage and the White House trying to prevent further GOP defections on the war issue, some Americans might miss the fact that there is yet another war brewing on the Senate floor, and unlike the battle in Baghdad, this war is a war of words.

Last week, Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., introduced the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Kennedy and Smith introduced the measure by adding it as an amendment to the Senate Defense Reauthorization bill.

According to the text of the bill, its purpose is "to provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes," and the measure would expand existing federal hate crimes law to include classes such as sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.

Presently, a 1969 law serves as a national hate crimes law and "prohibits willful injury, intimidation, or interference or attempt to do so, by force or threat of force of any person because of race, color, religion, or national origin" because that person is engaged in activities that include, but are not limited to, admission to public schools, application for employment and receiving any government benefits. Proponents of the hate crimes measure argue that the current federal law is inadequate and state and local governments need assistance in prosecuting hate crime laws already on the books in the states.

"Without any further delay, it's time for Congress to provide local police and sheriffs' departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a gay rights organization based in Washington, D.C.

To support its claim, HRC leadership points to FBI statistics finding that a hate crime is committed once every hour in the United States, and 1 in 6 of those hate crimes is directed at a citizen because of that person's sexual orientation. Conservative organizations opposing the hate crimes measure believe this argument is a red herring and that the law is a threat to First Amendment freedoms, specifically the rights of Christians who view homosexuality as immoral.

"Hate crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation is bad law because it criminalizes speech and does nothing to prevent violent crimes," stated Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, a public interest Christian law firm based in Orlando, Fla.

"All crimes are motivated by hate. Hate crimes laws will not be used to punish the perpetrator but will be used to silence people of faith, religious groups, clergy and those who support traditional moral values," he added.
Gay rights proponents are unconvinced by such arguments and denounce such statements as deliberate fear-mongering.

"Those on the right wing know what they are saying is divisive, and this bill has nothing to do with impeding free speech rights," stated Brad Luna, communications director for HRC. "The argument is disingenuous and shows the right is trying to use the issue to score political points."

Proponents of the bill argue that the measure is directed at conduct, not speech, and point to a provision of the bill that holds, "In a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense."

Another aspect of the debate has focused on bill's namesake, the late Matthew Shepard. Shepard was the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was murdered because he was a homosexual.

"The Matthew Shepard Act sends a strong message to America that hate and the violent crimes committed in its wake are not acceptable in our society," stated Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew and executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Shepard was speaking through a prepared HRC statement.

"This crucial piece of legislation is an important step in the ongoing effort to erase hate. I cannot think of a single more resounding action for the Senate to take in our son Matthew's memory," added Shepard.

Conservative Christians, however, point to a controversial 2004 expose aired by ABC's "20/20" that suggested Shepard's murder was not specifically motivated by his sexual orientation.

Christian leaders, nonetheless, further contend that the bill is unfair and punishes some greater than others.

"Under [this bill], acts of crime committed against members of certain protected classes - including those who identify themselves by their 'actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity' - would warrant more intense prosecution and greater penalties than the very same acts committed against heterosexuals," wrote Don Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, in an e-mail to the organization's members.
But proponents asserts that Wildmon's arguments are hypocritical because gays are merely fighting for the same rights bestowed to Christians under the 1969 federal hate crimes law.

"The Matthew Shepard Act is a symbol that can become substance. I believe that by passing this legislation and changing current law, we can change hearts and minds, as well," said Smith.

In May the House of Representatives, by a vote of 237-180, passed a virtually identical version of the Senate's bill. The Senate is expected to vote on this measure as early as today. President Bush has pledged to veto the measure.

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