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October 5, 2007

Senate passes hate crime act

Measure is tucked into defense bill in attempt to shield it from a veto

Washington, D.C.--The Senate approved hate crime protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity last week, attaching them to a defense spending bill that is a top priority of the Bush administration.

The hate crime measure, which passed the House on May 3, was attached to the 2008 defense authorization bill in the Senate on September 27. Nine Republicans crossed party lines to vote in favor of ending debate on the amendment, including Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, killing any chance the right had of filibustering it.

The Matthew Shepard Act would also provide federal resources to local and state law enforcement agencies for investigating and prosecuting hate crime.

Both independents in the Senate voted in favor of cloture, as did all Democrats including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.

President Bush had vowed to veto a stand-alone hate crime bill. However, attaching it to the appropriations measure places the president in the position of either approving the hate crime act, or vetoing a defense spending bill that is essential to the continued functioning of the military.

The defense bill passed the Senate on October 1 and now goes to a House-Senate conference committee. Of that panel’s 25 Senate members, 15 voted for cloture, nine voted against it and Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential candidate from Arizona, abstained.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, an opponent of the hate crime measure, told the New York Times, “The president is not going to agree to this social legislation on the defense authorization bill. This bill will get vetoed.”

White House spokesperson Dana Perino, however, was not certain that a veto would come, nor would a prospective veto be on the hate crime provision.

“Given that there are so many different things that a senior adviser might recommend a veto on, I’m not going to say specifically on this, but our position has been consistent,” the Washington Post quoted her as saying.

A similar maneuver in 2004 got the bill this far, only to have it stripped out when the House and Senate reconciled their versions.

This year, however, the Republicans, who are the primary opponents of hate crime legislation, have lost their majority in both chambers.

Present federal hate crime law applies to race, religion, color and national origin. The Matthew Shepard Act would add sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and disability. It would also increase the number of situations in which the federal government could be called in. The current law only applies to hate crimes that occur when the victim is engaged in a federally-protected activity, such as voting.

While some Republicans argued that the Democrats were trying to hijack the defense bill with the hate crime provision, Sen. Edward Kennedy believes its presence is bolstered by the current focus of defense policy: terrorism.

“The defense authorization bill is about dealing with the challenges of terrorism overseas,” he said. “This is about terrorism in our neighborhood. We want to fight terrorism here at home with all of our weapons.”

“We applaud the United States Senate for approving the Matthew Shepard Act,” said Jon Hoadley, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats in a September 27 statement. “This inclusive piece of legislation correctly addresses sexual orientation, gender identity and disability within federal law.”

“By passing this bill with comprehensive language, this legislation will provide law enforcement agencies with the tools needed to fully prosecute bias-motivated crimes,” he concluded.




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