By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009
When a gay Wyoming college student was slain in 1998, congressional Democrats pledged to broaden the definition of federal hate crimes by the end of that year to include attacks based on sexual orientation.
The effort instead turned into a decade-long proxy war between liberal groups that want to expand gay rights and conservative groups that do not. But Wednesday, President Obama signed the bill and then hosted a White House reception for gay activists and the parents of the slain student, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard.
"After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we've passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are," Obama said after the signing.
During that period, the House and the Senate separately approved the hate crimes expansion numerous times. But congressional Republicans repeatedly used legislative tactics to block final passage, arguing that most crimes that would fall under the law could be prosecuted under other statutes, and conservative groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition said the legislation would turn "homosexual behaviors as well as cross-dressing, transvestism, and transsexualism into federally-protected 'minority' groups."
This year, with enlarged majorities in Congress, Democrats attached the hate crimes law to a $681 billion defense spending bill this month over GOP objections. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the approach put "radical social policy" on the "back of our soldiers."
The legislation extends provisions first passed in 1968 that make it a federal crime to target individuals because of their race, religion or national origin. Under the law, judges can impose harsher penalties on crimes that are motivated by such animus, and the Justice Department can help local police departments investigate alleged hate crimes.
According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies around the country reported 7,624 hate crime incidents in 2007, the most recent year for which data were available. More than half were categorized as racially motivated, and about 17 percent were based on sexual orientation.
For Obama, the signing could quell rising discontent among gay rights groups, which have complained that he has done little to advance their causes in first year in office.
In particular, many gay activists say, Obama has not made good on his pledge to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prevents gays from serving openly in the military, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which effectively allows states that do not permit gay marriage to not recognize the unions of gay couples married in states that do.
"I think that obviously there's a great deal of impatience and frustration within our community, not just related to the last 10 months, but the last 10 years," said Joe Solomonese, president of the District-based Human Rights Campaign, which has worked for years on the issue. "But the White House was an absolutely critical partner in getting this legislation to the president's desk, and I have no doubt the White House will continue to be a partner in this fight."
Shepard's mother, Judy, said in a statement that she and her husband, Dennis, "are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly."
Although the House of Representatives passed the law 249 to 175 in a mostly party-line vote in April, the Senate added the legislation to the defense bill instead of passing it separately. The move angered Republicans, most of whom voted against the defense bill because of the hate crimes of both provisions in Congress.
"The Republican machine, they don't have the megaphone of the Obama administration, but maybe if they could have more effectively got their message out," said Mathew D. Staver, president of the Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal group.
But Rick Scarborough, head of the Texas-based conservative group Vision America, which has long opposed the hate crimes legislation, said there may be little Republicans can do to stop further gay rights legislation.
"I think they [bills that would expand gay rights] are morally wrong, and I'll continue to do my best to enter the debate," he said. "But it's a new day. These were the promises of Barack Obama, and he's living up to them."