By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007
Brushing aside a veto threat from President Bush, the House yesterday approved legislation that would extend federal hate-crime protection to gays and increase penalties against their attackers.
The legislation was first given life in 1998, after James Byrd Jr., an African American, was dragged to his death outside of Jasper, Tex., and Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was beaten and left to die, tied to a fence in Wyoming. Although the proposal has passed the House or Senate several times since 2000, it has never cleared the entire Congress.
But with Democrats in charge, advocates see the best chance yet of strengthening a federal hate-crime law that has existed since 1968 and focuses on race, color, religion and national origin. The bill passed with relative ease, 237 to 180, with 25 Republicans joining 212 Democrats. Fourteen Democrats opposed the bill.
"Hate crimes have no place in America, no place in a nation where we pledge every morning 'with liberty and justice for all,' " said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "We must act to end hate crimes and save lives."
But the president may stand in the way. On Wednesday, the House's staunchest conservatives wrote to Bush, saying the legislation federalizes law enforcement and "segregates people into different groups -- based on sex, gender identity, minority status, and other often nebulous terms -- then seeks to either reward or punish these different groups using different standards." Conservative religious groups said the bill would make criminals of clergymen who speak out against homosexuality, then inadvertently inspire violence from misguided followers.
The White House responded yesterday with a formal statement recommending that the president veto the bill.
"There has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement, and doing so is inconsistent with the proper allocation of criminal enforcement responsibilities between the different levels of government," the White House statement said.
Under the House bill, the definition of a hate crime would expand to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. Local law enforcement officials would be allowed to apply for federal grants to solve such crimes, and federal agents would be given broader authority to assist state and local police. Federal sentencing guidelines would also be stiffened.
Shepard's mother, Judy, appeared yesterday at an emotional, closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the House's only open lesbian, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the House's only openly gay man, and John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement, all made appeals to their colleagues.
"Some people ask, 'Why is this legislation even necessary?' " House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said during the debate. "To them, I answer, because brutal hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and identity or disability not only injure individual victims, but also terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric."