Just hours after the White House issued a veto threat Thursday, the House voted to add gender and sexual orientation to the categories covered by federal hate crimes law.
The House legislation, passed 237-180, also makes it easier for federal law enforcement to take part in or assist local prosecutions involving bias-motivated attacks. Similar legislation is also moving through the Senate, setting the stage for another veto showdown with President Bush.
The vote came after fierce lobbying from civil rights groups, who have been pushing for years for added protections against hate crimes, and social conservatives, who say the bill threatens the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality and singles out groups of citizens for special protection.
The White House, in a statement warning of a veto, said state and local criminal laws already cover the new crimes defined under the bill, and there was “no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement.”
It also noted that the bill leaves other classes, such as the elderly, the military and police officers, without similar special status.
Republicans, in a parliamentary move that would have effectively killed the bill, tried to add seniors and the military to those qualifying for hate crimes protection. It was defeated on a mainly party-line vote.
Hate crimes under current federal law apply to acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, or national original. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction only if the victim is engaged in a specific federally protected activity such as voting.
The House bill would extend the hate crimes category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability and give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crimes investigations. It approves $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crimes prosecutions.
Federal investigators could step in if local authorities are unwilling or unable to act. The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay rights group, said this federal intervention could have made a difference in the case of Brandon Teena, the young Nebraska transsexual depicted in the movie “Boys Don’t Cry” who was raped after two friends discovered that he was biologically female and then murdered when local police did not arrest those responsible.
But Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, warned that the true intent of the bill was “to muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality.” If you read the Bible in a certain way, he told his broadcast listeners, “you may be guilty of committing a ‘thought crime.’”
The legislation restates already-enacted penalties. Those using guns to commit crimes defined under the bill face prison terms of up to 10 years. Crimes involving kidnapping or sexual assault or resulting in death can bring life terms.
The Judiciary Committee cited FBI figures that there have been more than 113,000 hate crimes since 1991, including 7,163 in 1995. It said that racially motivated bias accounted for 55 percent of those incidents, religious bias for 17 percent, sexual orientation bias for 14 percent and ethnicity bias for 14 percent.
The bill is H.R. 1592