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A chance to fight hate

Congress left until next year legislation that would address bias and crimes against gays and lesbians.

December 24, 2007

Among the business Congress left unfinished in its stampede toward a Christmas recess were two initiatives to deal with the continuing reality of bias against gays and lesbians. One, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, would prohibit bias in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. The House has passed the bill; all that is required is Senate concurrence.

Another measure, which would broaden the definition of "hate crime" in federal law to include attacks motivated by the victim's sexual orientation or identity, faces a more tortuous path to passage. If supporters hope to enact that bill -- and discourage a threatened presidential veto -- they need to fine-tune it.

Named after a gay Wyoming college student who was beaten to death in 1998, the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act also would provide $10 million to help local law enforcement officials defray the cost of hate-crime investigations and, in rare cases, allow for federal prosecution of such crimes.

Approved by the House in May, the bill was added by the Senate to a defense authorization measure -- and then stripped from that bill in conference. That gives Congress an opportunity in the new year to improve the bill by narrowing its unduly broad definition of "hate crime."

The problem isn't that the definition includes crimes motivated by a victim's sexual orientation. FBI statistics suggest that such crimes are a real problem, making up 15% of reported "single bias" incidents in 2006. The problem is that the bill doesn't stop there.

Fearful of offending other minorities, the authors of the Shepard bill also provide for a federal role in hate crimes motivated by a victim's disability or gender. Yet only 1% of hate crime incidents logged by the FBI in 2006 involved someone targeted for his or her disability. Although the FBI doesn't keep track of "gender motivated" bias crimes, California does, and in 2006, only 0.8% of reported incidents involved gender.

Republicans, including President Bush, are naturally loath to expand the federal role in law enforcement, and the unnecessarily broad definition of "hate crime" gives Bush a pretext for vetoing a bill whose central provision is already controversial, especially with religious conservatives who oppose what they wrongly call "special rights" for gays and lesbians.

Crime statistics and common sense make the case for the current hate-crimes statute targeting acts of violence and harassment based on race, color, religion or national origin. Those same considerations justify enactment of a Matthew Shepard bill that targets the still-too-widespread bigotry that led to his death.

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