Hate crimes victims press Congress

WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 (JTA) — Jewish groups, civil rights organizations and lawmakers are calling on Congress to pass tougher hate crimes provisions before it adjourns later this fall.

Rabbi Brad Bloom, whose Sacramento, Calif., synagogue was torched in June, and Alan Stepakoff, whose 6-year old son was shot during an August attack at a Los Angeles Jewish community center, joined activists and lawmakers at a Capitol Hill news conference on Wednesday to press their case.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act would give federal prosecutors new authority to prosecute hate crimes against women, the disabled, and gays and lesbians. It would also make it easier for the federal government to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.

On Monday, Clinton vetoed the bill funding the Commerce, Justice and State departments because Republican leaders took the hate crimes provisions out of the legislation. Activists are lobbying for the provisions to be included a revamped version of the spending bill or in a catch-all spending bill that would emerge from negotiations between Congress and the White House.

Clinton is also expected to press Congress to pass the provisions when he speaks Friday at the Anti-Defamation League’s national commission meeting in Atlanta.

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.

A spate of high-profile hate crimes, including several targeting Jews, had generated new momentum for the legislation, which Jewish groups have been urging Congress to enact since 1997.

The measure was passed in the Senate in July as part of the appropriations bill funding, but it was not included in the House version. When House and Senate negotiators met to iron out differences in the two bills, Republican leaders stripped the provisions from the bill.

Republican lawmakers dropped the measure in part because they say it designates special classes of citizens, particularly gays and lesbians, who are already protected under existing state laws against violence. Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

With the 2000 elections in mind, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) challenged congressional Republicans, who hare strongly backing Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, to pass the legislation. The Texas governor is running on the slogan of “compassionate conservatism.”

“You cannot just talk about being compassionate and then say that it’s OK to beat up someone, or deface someone’s property because of their race, or their creed or color or their sexual orientation,” he said. “You cannot wink at the bigots.”

Stepakoff, whose son Joshua was shot by a white supremacist during the Aug. 10 attack at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Calif., said, “You can’t outlaw hate, but legislative support will send a clear message that our society is too mature, our country is too great to tolerate these kinds of crimes, no matter where in the United States people live or travel.”

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