- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gay victims of violence would gain new federal protections under a revived and expanded hate crimes bill passed by the House on Wednesday over conservatives’ objections.

Hate crimes - as defined by the bill - are those motivated by prejudice and based on someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The bill, which passed 249-175, could provide a financial bonanza to state and local authorities, with grants for investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The federal government could step in and prosecute if states requested it or declined to exercise their authority.

A weaker bill died two years ago under a veto threat from President George W. Bush.

President Obama, in contrast, urged support, saying it would “enhance civil rights protections, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association.” Mr. Obama called for passage in the Senate, where Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, is the chief sponsor.

The House bill added protections based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida Democrat, a supporter of the bill, contended it was protection for gays that drove the opposition.

“I wonder if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were talking about hate crimes based on race or religion,” she said, referring to Republican opponents of the measure. “It seems to me it is the category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the fact that we have hate crimes laws at all.”

She then recounted cases where gay people were victims of violence.

The issue was personal for openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, who said the bill would protect “people like me.” He said he wasn’t asking for approval from people with whom he didn’t want to associate.

Current law only permits federal prosecutions against crimes based on race, religion, color or national origin - and only when the victims are engaged in federally protected activity such as voting.

The bill aroused the ire of conservative religious groups and pastors. Several Republicans argued those leaders could face criminal charges for speaking out against homosexuality or, at the very least, would be reluctant to state their views.

Supporters pointed to a section of the bill that protects any activities protected by the Constitution, and countered that nothing would prevent the religious leaders from speaking out.

The opponents and supporters argued strenuously over whether the bill would divide or unite Americans.

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, said the bill “divides America” by singling out special groups for protection.

“We should focus on the opposite, uniting America,” he said. “The bill is probably unconstitutional and will be struck down” by the courts.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, countered, “We in America have said we believe all people ought to be treated equally. If America stands for anything it stands for equality under the law.”

Americans, he added, should not have fewer rights because of the groups to which they belong.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, reported that there were 926 active hate groups in 2008, compared to 602 in 2000.

Forty-five states have hate crime laws, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The exceptions are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming.

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