WASHINGTON - Assaulting people because of their sexual orientation would become a federal hate crime in legislation the House is set to vote on Thursday. The bill would significantly expand the hate crimes law enacted in the days after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968.
With the expected House passage and eventual approval by the Senate, federal prosecutors will for the first time be able to intervene in cases of violence perpetrated against gays based on their sexual orientation.
Civil rights groups and their Democratic allies have been trying for decades to broaden the reach of hate crimes law. This time it appears they will succeed. The measure is attached to a must-pass $680 billion defense policy bill and President Barack Obama - unlike President George W. Bush - is a strong supporter.
"It's a very exciting day for us here in the Capitol," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., saying hate crimes legislation was on her agenda when she first entered Congress 22 years ago.
She said it's been 11 years since the gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, whose name is attached to the legislation, was murdered.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was a longtime advocate of the legislation.
Many Republicans, normally stalwart supporters of defense bills, declared they would vote against it because of the addition of what they referred to as "thought crimes" legislation.
"The very idea that we would erode the freedoms for which our soldiers wear the uniform in a bill that is designed to provide resources those soldiers need to get the job done and come home safe is unconscionable," said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, a member of the Republican leadership.
GOP opponents were not assuaged by late changes in the bill to strengthen protections for religious speech and association - critics argued that pastors expressing beliefs about homosexuality could be prosecuted if their sermons were connected to later acts of violence against gays.
Supporters countered that prosecutions could occur only when bodily injury is involved, and no minister or protestor could be targeted for expressing opposition to homosexuality.
The bill also creates a new federal crime to penalize attacks against U.S. service members on account of their service.
Hate crimes legislation enacted after King's assassination defined hate crimes as those carried out on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It also limits the scope of activities that would trigger federal involvement.
The proposed expansion would include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It eases restrictions on federally protected activities.
Some 45 states have hate crimes statutes, and the bill would not change the current situation where investigations and prosecutions are carried out by state and local officials.
But it would provide federal grants to help with the prosecuting of hate crimes and funds programs to combat hate crimes committed by juveniles.
The federal government can step in after the Justice Department certifies that a state is unwilling or unable to follow through on a purported hate crime.
While Republicans said they would vote against the defense bill because of the hate crimes addition, openly gay Democrat Jared Polis of Colorado said he would vote for it despite his opposition to U.S. military presence in Iraq. The reason hate crimes are so odious, he said, "is that they are not just crimes against individuals, they are crimes against entire communities and create environments of fear in entire communities."
Tom McClusky, vice president of the conservative Family Research Council's legislative arm said the next step likely would be contesting the legislation in court. "The religious protections are pretty flimsy," he said. He contended that Democrats were trying to move their "homosexual agenda" this year because it would prove unpopular with voters next year.
The FBI says there are some 8,000 hate crimes reported around the country in a year. More than half of those are motivated by racial bias. Next most frequent are crimes based on religious bias at around 18 percent and sexual orientation at 16 percent.
The defense bill is H.R. 2647.
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