Federal Law on Hate Crimes Gains Momentum, but Still Faces Hurdles

Recent public outrage over well-publicized hate crimes has prompted lawmakers to push for a tougher federal hate crimes statute.

But it remains unclear whether a lobbying effort by Jewish and civil rights activists will be enough to overcome opposition in Congress.

The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have been urging lawmakers to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which would give the federal government more authority to investigate and prosecute hate-driven violence, while broadening existing law to include crimes committed because of a person’s gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

“Tragically, the silence of Congress on this basic issue has been deafening, and it is unacceptable,” Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the lead sponsor of the bill, said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue last week.

“We must stop acting like we don’t care — that somehow this fundamental issue is just a state and local problem. It isn’t. It’s a national problem, and for too long, Congress has been A WOL.”

The bill has bipartisan support, including backing from President Clinton, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has raised concerns over whether the proposal is constitutional and what the federal government’s role should be in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes at the state level.

Other lawmakers oppose the provision dealing with sexual orientation.

In fact, that provision may be the key sticking point that kills the bill, as was the case when a similar bill died in the Texas legislature last week.

That state’s Senate, which has a one-seat Republican majority, blocked a proposed hate crimes law that included homosexuals as a protected category.

Although the bill — dubbed the James Byrd Jr. Act in memory of the black man dragged to his death in Texas last year in a racially motivated crime — had widespread support, conservative Republicans opposed it because of the sexual orientation provision.

The defeat of the bill, moreover, was viewed as an attempt to spare Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP presidential frontrunner, the difficult choice of vetoing a popular measure or signing a bill that would have alienated an important constituency.

Jewish activists, for their part, hope the bill pending in Congress does not meet that fate.

“Any time a hate crimes bill is held hostage or used as a political football it is unfortunate,” said Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington counsel, adding that consideration of such legislation should be “above politics.”

At the same time, some congressional observers say that the high profile gay- rights activists have given to the issue could cause the legislation to founder.

One source, noting opposition among some Republican leaders, said flatly that the bill “is not going to pass this Congress because of the gay rights issue.”

Aside from broadening the categories that qualify as hate crimes, the legislation would make it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes by extending the Justice Department’s jurisdiction.

Under current law, the Justice Department’s authority is limited to crimes that occur in conjunction with a federally protected activity, such as voting or going to school.

The proposed bill would eliminate that limitation, making it easier for the federal government to prosecute cases like the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a Jewish student from Australia, during the 1991 Crown Heights riots in New York.

NEXT STORY