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Obama's promise to gays

Some activists worry that campaign pledges may be pushed aside as the president confronts other issues.

May 22, 2009

A decade after a young gay man named Matthew Shepard was tortured and killed in Wyoming, legislation designed to help prosecute similar outrages may be on the verge of enactment. President Obama should press the Senate to take up -- and improve -- a House-passed hate crimes bill informally known as the Matthew Shepard Act. But he shouldn't stop there in redeeming his campaign promise of legal equality for gays and lesbians.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act would allow the federal government to provide financial assistance to state and local police to investigate and prosecute acts of violence grounded in hatred of gays and lesbians, just as it does for other hate crimes. In rare cases, when local authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute, the Justice Department could step in.

The bill isn't perfect. Its definition of hate crimes includes acts of violence motivated by bias based on gender or disability, despite scarce evidence that such attacks are remotely as prevalent as bias crimes based on race, religion or sexual orientation. As we have observed, too broad a definition of hate crimes makes it easier for opponents to characterize the legislation as a symbolic exercise in identity politics rather than a response to a real problem. This defect, however, could easily be remedied by the Senate.

Some gay activists fear that, given the welter of other issues confronting the president, he may be unwilling to expend time or political capital on this or other gay-rights initiatives. Their anxiety was exacerbated by Obama's refusal to intervene in the expulsion from the National Guard of Dan Choi, an Arabic-speaking Iraq war veteran who disclosed he was gay in a TV interview. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Choi's case showed that "don't ask, don't tell" is a failure, adding that Obama would work with Congress and the Pentagon on a new policy. But changes, he said, "require more than the snapping of one's fingers."

That less-than-ringing reaffirmation of Obama's support for gays in the military sows doubt about whether the president will vigorously lobby Congress for two other items on his campaign's gay-rights agenda: enactment of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act protecting gays and lesbians against workplace discrimination, and a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman." Political reality and the press of other business may justify the postponement of some of Obama's campaign promises, but these aren't among them.

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