The U.S. Senate is nearing a vote on legislation that would define violent crime against homosexuals and the disabled in much the same way as racially-motivated crime.
The bill would add crimes motivated by sexual orientation or disability to offenses already covered under a 1968 federal law, thus allowing federal prosecutors to pursue a hate-crime case if local authorities refuse to press charges.
Current law allows only race, color, religion or national origin to be the basis of a federal hate-crime case. The legislation would also give federal aid to local law enforcement agencies to investigate hate crimes.
The bill was prompted by the case of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who prosecutors say was beaten to death in 1998 because he was homosexual.
Elizabeth Birch, Executive Director of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group, says it is time federal law addressed hate crimes based on sexual orientation. "Hate crimes," she said, "are a form of domestic terrorism, and they are designed to control an entire group, not just to allow an individual to suffer or to perish."
Opponents of the bill, mostly Republicans, acknowledge more must be done to crack down on hate crimes based on sexual orientation. But they argue the legislation, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, violates the U.S. Constitution because it takes law-enforcement power away from the states.
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, said, "The legislation proposed by my good friend from Massachusetts brings us face to face with the foundations of our Constitutional structure, namely the bedrock principles of federalism that for more than two centuries have vested states with the primary responsibility for prosecuting violent crimes committed within their boundaries."
Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, a Republican who backs the bill, dismisses such criticism. He said, "We are not at all interested in any way of taking away or diminishing the first line of defense, which is the local police department. We want to help them do what they are called upon to do."
The Senate has passed the bill twice, both in 1999 and in 2000, as amendments to agency spending bills. But when those bills went to a joint conference committee to reconcile differences in House and Senate versions of the legislation, House Republicans blocked the hate crimes measure from being included.
Majority Democrats in the Senate have scheduled a procedural vote Tuesday to end debate on the hate crimes bill and clear the way for a vote. Republican opponents have criticized the move as way to push through the bill without adequate debate.