Hate Crime Bill Might Make Md. A Pioneer

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

Maryland would become the first state to list the homeless as a class protected from hate crimes under legislation that is headed to Gov. Martin O'Malley's desk.

The groundbreaking measure, championed by one of the legislature's most conservative Republicans, was approved in the House of Delegates four minutes before the General Assembly adjourned at midnight Monday. O'Malley (D) is reviewing the bill, which also adds penalties for violent crimes against people targeted because of their gender or disability.

Advocates called the law a symbolic and practical victory in the absence of similar protections in federal law and spoke of the often vicious crimes against the homeless. The D.C. Council is considering similar legislation. Maine gives judges discretion in sentencing for crimes against the homeless, and Alaska includes them in its vulnerable victims statute. A conviction in Maryland for a violent crime will carry an additional sentence of up 20 years and a $20,000 fine.

Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) says his first attempt to pass the bill, four years ago, was motivated by cynicism: He was offended by legislation adding sexual orientation to the list of protected categories, which also covers race, religion and national origin.

He proposed no fewer than 10 failed amendments to that bill, trying to add civil rights leaders, doctors, lawyers, veterans, nurses and others to homosexuals and offending many of his Democratic colleagues.

"I said, 'If we're going to open up this bottle, let's consider lots of other groups that don't have powerful lobbies in Annapolis,' " he said.

He was criticized for advocating for a group whose interests many believed he didn't take seriously.

"They weren't sure if he was doing it to score rhetorical points or because he believed in this issue," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), the Judiciary Committee chairman.

Mooney is one of the Senate's staunchest opponents of gay rights, abortion, illegal immigration and government intrusion in private lives.

He said he started taking the homeless issue to heart after he watched a television clip in which a group of homeless people was beaten to death with baseball bats. "I realized homeless people are vulnerable people," Mooney said. National advocacy groups and the Maryland Catholic Conference rallied to his cause.

The bill passed the Senate two years running but stalled in the House Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers questioned whether singling out the homeless would dilute the hate crimes statute. Advocacy groups reduced their effort this year.

"There's an unwritten tradition in Annapolis that if a bill goes down to defeat twice, the third year you hold off and then reintroduce it to give it new life," said Michael Stoops, executive director of the District-based National Coalition for the Homeless.

The solution came through legislative maneuvering. A bill sponsored by Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery) adding age, gender and disability to protected categories passed the House, and Mooney's bill passed the Senate. Gender, disability and homelessness emerged as protected categories in a compromise bill.

"I told Alex that he is now a hero to women across the state," Kramer said. "Who knew?"

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