Washington - The Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday approved
an expansion of federal "hate crime" laws -- an effort that former
Republican President George W. Bush had opposed.
On a vote of 249-175, the House passed and sent to the Senate a bill backed
by the new Democratic White House to broaden such laws by classifying as "hate
crimes" those attacks based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity
or mental or physical disability.
The current law, enacted four decades ago, limits federal jurisdiction over
hate crimes to assaults based on race, color, religion or national origin.
The bill would lift a requirement that a victim had to be attacked while engaged
in a federally protected activity, like attending school, for it to be a federal
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer urged passage of the Federal Local Law
Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.
"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," Hoyer said.
Bush had helped stop such a bill in the last Congress, arguing existing state
and federal laws were adequate. But President Barack Obama asked Congress to
send it to him to sign into law.
"I urge members on both sides of the aisle to act on this important civil
rights issue by passing this legislation to protect all of our citizens from
violent acts of intolerance," Obama said in a statement before the vote.
Conviction of a hate crime carries stepped up punishment, above and beyond
that meted out for the attack. The bill would allow the federal government to
help state and local authorities investigate hate crimes.
Representative Lamar Smith, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee,
helped lead the charge against the bill, arguing it was misdirected and discriminatory.
"All violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted," Smith said. "Unfortunately,
this bill undermines one of the most basic principles of our criminal justice
system -- 'equal justice for all.'"
"Justice will now depend on the race, gender, sexual orientation, disability
or other protected status of the victim," Smith said. "It will allow
different penalties to be imposed for the same crime."
Earlier this year, Congress passed two other major bills derailed during the
One, vetoed by Bush, would have expanded a federal health insurance program
for children. The other, blocked by Bush's fellow Republicans in the Senate,
would have reversed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to make it easier to sue for
discrimination in the workplace.
With Democrats having won the White House and expanded their control of Congress
in the 2008 election, both measures were among the party's top 2009 legislative
priorities. And they became among the first bills Obama signed into law.
(Editing by Eric Beech)