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Senate votes to expand hate crimes protection

Kennedy had fought 10 years to include gays

By Jim Abrams
Associated Press / October 23, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Physical attacks on people based on their sexual orientation will join the list of federal hate crimes in a major expansion of the civil rights-era law that Congress approved yesterday and sent to President Obama for his signature.

A priority of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts that had been on the congressional agenda for a decade, the measure expands current law to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The measure is named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student murdered 11 years ago.

To ensure its passage after years of frustrated efforts, Democratic supporters attached the measure to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill the Senate approved 68 to 29. The House passed the defense bill earlier this month.

Many Republicans, normally staunch supporters of defense bills, voted against the bill because of the hate crimes provision. All the no votes were Republicans, except for Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, who supported the hate crimes provision but opposes what he says is the open-ended military commitment in Afghanistan.

“The inclusion of the controversial language of the hate crimes legislation, which is unrelated to our national defense, is deeply troubling,’’ said Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican.

New England’s senators voted for the bill, including Republicans Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Senator Paul G. Kirk Jr. of Massachusetts, Kennedy’s interim replacement, acknowledged that it was unusual for the legislation to be shoe-horned into the defense measure, but said the “rule of law will be stronger in America’’ because of it.

“It’s an extremely important bill and was especially important to Senator Kennedy,’’ Kirk said in a statement. “He worked on it for years to close the loopholes that have prevented effective prosecution of these flagrant crimes that terrorize entire groups of communities across America.’’

“The statistics about hate crimes are shocking and shameful. For far too long, law enforcement has been forced to investigate these vicious crimes with one hand tied behind its back,’’ Kirk added.

The hate crimes law enacted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 centered on crimes based on race, color, religion, or national origin.

The expansion has long been sought by civil rights and gay rights groups. Conservatives have opposed it, contending that it creates a special class of victims. They also have been concerned that it could silence clergymen or others opposed to homosexuality on religious or philosophical grounds.

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, hailed the bill as “our nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence.’’

The measure also provides federal grants to help state and local governments prosecute hate crimes and funds programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles.

Attorney General Eric Holder said nearly 80,000 hate crimes have been reported to the FBI since he first testified before Congress in support of a hate crimes bill 11 years ago. “It has been one of my highest personal priorities to ensure that this legislation finally becomes law,’’ he said.

The FBI says more than half of reported hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. That is followed by crimes based on religious bias, at around 18 percent, and sexual orientation, at 16 percent.

At the urging of Republicans, the bill was changed to strengthen free speech protections to ensure that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the basis of his or her speech, beliefs, or association.

But that did not convince Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, who said the bill was a “dangerous step’’ toward thought crimes.

He asked whether the bill would “serve as a warning to people not to speak out too loudly about their religious views.’’