Thursday, October 8, 2009

House Votes to Expand Definition of Hate Crimes

Published: October 8, 2009
WASHINGTON — The House voted by a wide margin on Thursday to expand the definition of violent federal hate crimes to cover those committed because of a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
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Democrats and advocates hailed the 281-to-146 vote, which put the measure on the brink of becoming law, as the culmination of a long push to curb violent expressions of bias like the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student.
"Left unchecked, crimes of this kind threaten to ruin the very fabric of America," said Representative Susan Davis, Democrat of California.
The hate-crimes measure was approved as part of a broad $681 billion Pentagon policy measure, a strategy that infuriated House Republicans who accused Democrats of employing a form of legislative blackmail.
Most Democrats voted for the measure, as did more than 40 Republicans.
Republicans who opposed the measure said Democrats were essentially forcing through contentious social policy by tying it to a highly popular measure that authorizes military pay, benefits, weapons programs and other essentials for the armed forces. Even some Republican members of the Armed Services Committee who helped write the underlying legislation said they would oppose it solely because of the hate-crimes provision.
"We believe this is a poison pill, poisonous enough that we refuse to be blackmailed into voting for a piece of social agenda that has no place in this bill," said Representative Todd Akin of Missouri, a senior Republican member of the committee.
Republicans also criticized the substance of the legislation as an effort to prosecute "thought crimes" in which the motivation of the attacker has to be discerned.
Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, called it radical social policy. "The idea that we're going to pass a law that's going to add further charges to someone based on what they may have been thinking, I think is wrong," he said.
The final Pentagon measure must still be approved by the Senate. But the hate-crimes provision has broad support there, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said the contents of the overall measure outweighed his own objections to including the hate crimes provision.
President Obama supports the hate-crimes measure, though the White House has raised objections to other elements of the bill related to military procurement. If it is signed into law, the legislation would reflect the ability of Democrats to move ahead on difficult measures with their increased majorities in Congress and a Democrat in the White House.
"Elections have consequences," Mr. McCain said.
The hate-crime provision had passed both the House and Senate in previous years as a separate bill, but the bill could never clear its final hurdles. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was fitting that Congress was acting now because Monday is the 11th anniversary of Mr. Shepard's death. The legislation is known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, for Mr. Shephard and a black man who was killed in a race-based attack in Texas the same year.
"When I came to Congress 22 years ago, hate-crimes legislation was one of the items on my agenda," Ms. Pelosi said.
The hate-crimes legislation allocates $5 million a year to the Justice Department to provide assistance to local communities in investigating such crimes, a process that can sometimes strain local police resources. It allows the Justice Department to assist in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes if asked to do so by local authorities.
"The problem of crimes motivated by bias is sufficiently serious, widespread, and interstate in nature as to warrant federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes," the measure says.
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded reports of more than 77,000 hate crimes from 1998 through 2007 and that crimes based on sexual orientation were on an upward trend.
"The hate-crimes act will hopefully deter people from being targeted for violent attacks because of the color of their skin or their religion, their disability, their gender, or their sexual orientation, regardless of where the crime takes place," he said.
Raising a criticism of the legislation that has circulated among conservatives, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana, the No. 3 House Republican, said the measure could inhibit freedom of speech and deter religious leaders from discussing their views of moral traditions for fear of being caught up in the law.
"It is just simply wrong to use a bill designed to support our troops to reverse the very freedoms for which they fight," he said.
But Democrats noted that the bill specifically bars prosecution based on an individual's expression of "racial, religious, political or other beliefs." It also states that nothing in the measure should be "construed to diminish any rights under the 1st Amendment to the Constitution."
Still, Republicans said the hate-crimes measure was unconstitutional, and a court challenge is expected if it becomes law.

This Article is related to American Government because it's talking about how Democrats want to create a bill that says that a crime committed against someone because of their gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs is a hate crime. Many Republicans don't agree with this because they think that any crime is a hate crime, not just one committed because of a certain persons belief or life style. The Republicans think that this bill is unconstitutional and they will fight to end this bill if it does get approved by the senate and becomes a law.

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