The U.S. Senate on Tuesday, on a 65-33 vote, overwhelmingly passed legislation that would fully prosecute bias-motivated crimes that target individuals based on sexual orientation. Every Democrat in attendance voted in favor of the legislation, as did 18 Republicans.
"Hate crimes tear at the very fabric of our nation," said Oregon senator Gordon Smith, who cosponsored the bill with Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. "These kinds of crimes do more than harm the victims. They terrorize our entire society and send a message of hate and intolerance to millions of Americans."
Added Patrick Guerriero, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans: "We hope that the political courage that Republican senators showed today will be a sign to those in the party who seek to promote a divisive social agenda."
Under current law, the federal government does not prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on sexual orientation to the same extent that it prosecutes similar crimes, such as those based on race or religion. The legislation also allows the government to provide state and local law enforcement agencies with resources that are already made available in the prosecution of other bias-motivated crimes.
The hate crimes bill--also known as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act--was tacked onto the Department of Defense Authorization bill. A final version of that bill will now be hammered out in conference committee.
Legislation dealing with the inequitable prosecution of hate crimes was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1997. The Senate passed this legislation in 1999 and in 2000 as amendments to existing bills. However, House Republicans killed the legislation both times in conference committees. In 2002, the then-Democratic Senate majority attempted to pass the legislation in an up-or-down cloture vote in order to prevent Republicans from offering amendments that would water down the legislation. There, the majority of Senate Republicans voted against the bill, and it died.
Transgender activists quickly noted that the version of the bill passed by the Senate did not include language that would allow prosecution of crimes motivated by gender expression under the proposed law. National Transgender Activist Coalition board member Ethan St. Pierre commented, "In light of the amount of crimes that are committed each year against trans people that result in death, the fact [that] the language 'gender identity or inclusion' is not in the bill continues to send the message that it's OK to hate us and to kill us.
"It's a slap in the face," added St. Pierre, a trans man whose aunt Debra Forte (a trans woman) was killed in a hate crime. "It's like saying that [my aunt's] life didn't matter."
Predictably, Monday's announcement drew the wrath of antigay conservative group Concerned Women for America. "Under a hate-crimes law, someone who mugs your grandmother will not be prosecuted as vigorously as someone who commits the same crime against a homosexual. This says to criminals: 'Mug Grandma; It's less risky.' Hate-crime laws aren't about justice; they are about favoritism and special rights," said Robert Knight, director of CWA's Culture and Family Institute. "Equal protection means your grandma and your friend who lives as a homosexual have the same rights when they walk down the street."
However, Dave Noble, National Stonewall Democrats executive director, said, "Today we applaud Senate Democrats and those Republicans who rejected the divisive politics of the Republican leadership. The Bush White House and Senate Republican leadership continue to use cultural issues in an attempt to divide the electorate. However, it is time for the Republican Party to join Democrats in demonstrating a commitment to law enforcement by supporting the equitable prosecution of hate crimes."