House passes hate crimes bill

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by NewsChannel 5 and
O&AN Staff Reports

The House of Representatives have passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (also called the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act), which expands categories covered by federal hate crimes. Similar legislation is moving through the Senate and The White House is threatening a veto if the legislation makes it to the President’s desk.

Under the legislation passed today, 237 – 180, the law would also apply to crimes based on gender and sexual orientation. The measure also makes it easier for federal law enforcement to help local efforts to prosecute the people responsible for attacks based on bias.

In the Tennessee delegation, only two Democrats, Reps. Stephen Cohen and Jim Cooper, voted for the bill. Rep. John Tanner, a Democrat, did not vote.

Joe Solomones, president of the national Human Rights Campaign, told HRC members in an email that the legislation passed in the House thanks to a last-minute visit by Judy Shepard.

“The battle isn’t over,” Solomonese said. “The radical right is terrified of this bill – their attacks have been ferocious, and this vote will only intensify them.”

As the final vote was taken, Democratic Congressman Barney Frank presided over the chamber. He’s the only openly gay man in the House.

Civil rights groups have been calling for added protections against hate crimes. But social conservatives say this bill threatens the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality.

The White House says state and local laws already cover the new crimes that are defined under the bill.

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.  Federal investigators could step in if local authorities are unwilling or unable to act.