House Votes to Add Sexual Orientation to Law on Hate Crimes

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press
Friday, October 9, 2009

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a bill that would broaden the definition of federal hate crimes to include attacks based on sexual orientation, legislation that would bring major changes to a law enacted in the days after the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Civil rights groups and their Democratic allies have come close to expanding the hate crimes bill several times in the past decade, but have always fallen short because of lack of House-Senate coordination or opposition from former President George W. Bush.

But this time it appears they may succeed. The bill was attached to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill that the Senate could approve as early as next week. President Obama, unlike his predecessor, has promised to sign it into law.

"No American should ever have to suffer persecution or violence because of who they are, how they look or what they believe," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), noting that hate crimes legislation has been on her agenda since she first entered Congress more than two decades ago.

She added that it's been 11 years since the gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, whose name was attached to the legislation, was murdered.

The House vote on the defense bill was 281 to 146. Unlike usual defense bill votes, most of those in opposition -- 131 out of the 146 -- were Republicans objecting strenuously to inclusion of what they referred to as "thought crimes" legislation in a defense bill.

"The inclusion of 'thought crimes' legislation in what is otherwise a bipartisan bill for troop funding is an absolute disgrace," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, head of the GOP conservative caucus.

GOP opponents were not assuaged by late changes in the bill to strengthen protections for religious speech and association -- critics had argued that pastors expressing beliefs about homosexuality could be prosecuted if their sermons were connected to later acts of violence against people who are gay.

Supporters countered that prosecution could occur only when bodily injury is involved, and no minister or protester could be targeted for expressing opposition to homosexuality.

Legislation enacted after King's assassination defined hate crimes as those carried out on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It also limited the scope of activities that would trigger federal involvement.

The proposed expansion would include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change the current situation in which investigations and prosecutions are carried out by state and local officials. The bill would provide federal grants to help with the prosecuting of hate crimes.

The federal government can step in after the Justice Department certifies that a state is unwilling or unable to prosecute a purported hate crime.

The FBI says there are some 8,000 hate crimes reported around the country in a year. More than half of those are motivated by racial bias.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company