A bill that would add sexual orientation to the list of characteristics protected by federal hate-crimes laws--and which has languished in Congress in one form or another for many years--was reintroduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate. The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act has received bipartisan support as well as the backing of law enforcement officials. Introduced by senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the bill would extend federal hate-crimes protections to the characteristics of real or perceived sexual orientation, gender, and disability, thus allowing the federal government greater leverage in providing assistance for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. "Hate crimes are meant to instill fear and create an atmosphere of intimidation against entire communities," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director for the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "This legislation will help to curtail the scourge of hate violence that is all too frequently directed at gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Americans."
The measure currently has 49 original cosponsors and is endorsed by more than 175 law enforcement,
civil rights, civic, and religious organizations. The measure has already passed the Senate in earlier forms on two different occasions--most recently in June 2000, as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill, by a Senate vote of 57-42, with 13 Republicans in support. In September 2000 the House also passed a motion supporting the measure by a vote of 232-192, with 41 Republicans in support. The legislation also passed the Senate in July 1999, as an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, State appropriations bill. Each time, the amendment was stripped out in conference committee.
Since the FBI began collecting hate-crimes statistics in 1991, more than 11,000 hate crimes based on sexual orientation have been reported. Since 1991, reported hate crimes based on sexual orientation have more than tripled, increasing 7.2% from 2000 to 2001, for a total of 1,393 incidents that year. Comparatively, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, a nonprofit organization that tracks bias incidents against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, reported 1,943 incidents for 2001. The discrepancy in numbers is partially attributed to underreporting of hate crimes to the FBI, something that is is often motivated by fear of further discrimination and victimization.