A long-stalled bill that would expand the federal hate crime law to cover violent acts based on a victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is headed for approval in the Democratic-controlled Congress but faces a White House veto threat.
The House on Thursday approved the measure, the first major expansion of the hate crime statute since it was enacted in 1968. Senate approval is expected soon, putting the controversial bill on the president's desk for the first time since it was proposed nearly a decade ago.
Under intense pressure from conservative religious organizations to derail the bill, the White House on Thursday called it "unnecessary and constitutionally questionable," issuing the latest in a string of veto threats aimed at the congressional Democratic majority.
The measure was spurred by a number of high-profile incidents, including the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten in Wyoming and left to die tied to a fence.
Shepard's mother, Judy, who lobbied for the bill's passage, addressed House Democrats shortly before the vote and watched the debate from the gallery. "I'm so relieved. It's been a long time," she said afterward.
The House approved the bill 237 to 180, with 25 Republicans joining 212 Democrats in passing it. Voting no were 166 Republicans and 14 Democrats. The California delegation voted along party lines, except for Republican Mary Bono of Palm Springs, who supported the measure. Republicans Duncan Hunter of El Cajon and George P. Radanovich of Mariposa did not vote.
The vote was short of the two-thirds needed to override a presidential veto.
"We are not going to stop working on this president," he said. "There's time before this goes to the president's desk. I hope that we have an opportunity to engage the White House ... to talk to him about the kind of legacy he wants to look back upon."
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, called the White House veto threat "extraordinarily disappointing" and accused the bill's vocal opponents of using it to rally their base "around fear."
"This really is a criminal justice issue, where we have groups of people who face heightened victimization because of their group's status," said Levin, a lawyer and professor of criminal justice.
Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who voted for the bill, called on Bush to "follow his father's example" and sign the legislation. President George H.W. Bush signed a bill in 1990 requiring the Justice Department to collect statistics on crimes motivated by racial, ethnic or anti-gay prejudice.
House approval of the hate crime bill came after an emotional debate with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) presiding over the chamber during roll call. Frank is gay.
"Some people ask: Why is this legislation even necessary?" House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said. "Because brutal hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation and identity or disability not only injure individual victims, but also terrorize entire segments of our population and tear at our nation's social fabric."
Opponents argue that the bill would create special classes of federally protected crime victims. "If someone commits a crime, they should be punished for that crime. Period," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.). "Today the Democratic majority has chosen to end equality under the law."
Added Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas): "Justice should be blind to the personal traits of victims."
Some bill opponents also say the measure could stifle religious expression. They derided the measure as "thought crimes" legislation, contending that a pastor who preached against homosexuality could be charged with a hate crime if one of his church members committed a hate crime. The bill's supporters dispute that, saying the measure preserves 1st Amendment rights.
The FBI received reports of 7,163 hate crimes in 2005, the most recent year for which data were available. Racial motivation accounted for about 55%; religious for 17%; sexual orientation, 14%; and ethnicity/national origin, about 13%. Less than 1% of hate crimes were attributed to bias against an individual's disability.
Under the existing hate crime law, federal authorities can investigate and prosecute violence motivated by a victim's race, color, religion or national origin. The proposed legislation would add motivations of sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity (that is, transgender individuals).
Violations of the hate crime law are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and, in the case of the death of the victim, life in prison.
Proponents of the legislation said it would offer new protections in 19 states that don't have hate crime laws covering sexual orientation or gender identity. (California hate crime law covers attacks motivated by a victim's sexual orientation, gender or disability.)
The bill, which is partly a response to the 1999 shooting attack on a Jewish community center in the San Fernando Valley by a white supremacist, also gives federal authorities more leeway to assist state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Current law limits federal involvement to cases in which victims are engaged in federally protected activities, such as attending school or voting. The new law would cover "a wider range of circumstances," according to a House Judiciary Committee report.
The companion bill in the Senate, which is named after Matthew Shepard, was introduced by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.) and has 42 co-sponsors.
Hate crime legislation was a priority of the Clinton administration. Though measures have passed previously in the House or Senate, they never made it to the president's desk during the days of the Republicancontrolled Congress.
With Democrats in control, the bill appears certain to reach Bush. But the White House warned in a statement that the president's "senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill."
The statement said state and local laws already covered the violence addressed in the legislation. "There has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement," the administration said.
The bill is supported by a range of civil rights and law enforcement groups, including the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police and attorneys general from 31 states.
In a letter to members of Congress, Levin urged passage of the expanded hate crime law, noting that federal criminal civil rights prosecutions had dropped significantly in recent years. "We believe this bill will, in part, remedy this disturbing trend," he wrote.
But some conservatives and religious groups have worked hard to defeat the bill.
The House vote "slapped Christians in the face," said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
She criticized the bill for creating "two new federally protected minority groups" based on sexual orientation or gender identity.