A civil rights advance

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA is scheduled to sign Wednesday what is being described as the nation's first significant pro-gay rights legislation. Attached to the defense authorization act, the measure would add sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability to the list of protected classes under the 1969 federal hate-crimes law.

Under the law, upon written certification by the U.S. attorney general or his designee, the Justice Department will be able to prosecute a crime that targets the victim based on his or her identity and that attempts to inflict or results in serious bodily harm or death using, among other things, a firearm or an incendiary or explosive device. A state can ask Justice to step in if it lacks a hate-crimes law but feels such charges are warranted. (Eighteen states do not have a law addressing hate crimes based on sexual orientation.) A state can also seek funds or expertise from the federal government to pursue such cases. The price tag is $15 million over three years, starting in 2010.

The law doesn't outlaw bigotry or "thought crimes." It applies only to "violent acts motivated by" the characteristics of the victim -- acts, not thoughts or speech. But crimes that target someone because of race or sexual orientation are more than offenses against that individual. They can terrorize whole communities.

While this is an advance, more important legislation awaits: banning workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation, ending the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military, and allowing same-sex marriage. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) must make it a priority to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act. President Obama has repeatedly said he'd sign those bills into law. It's time for Congress to follow through.

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