WASHINGTON, July 26 (JTA) — The prospects for passing national hate crimes legislation just got a little brighter.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a hate crimes bill Thursday by a vote of 12-7.
It is likely that the full Senate will pass the bill sometime this fall. Last year, senators voted 57-42 to enact identical hate crimes provisions — but the measures later were stripped out of a defense bill.
In the House of Representatives, 195 legislators are on record so far in support of similar provisions — still a bit short of the number needed to pass a bill.
The legislation that passed the Senate committee Thursday would authorize federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability, expanding current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity.
Under the legislation, state and local law enforcement agencies still would have primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, but would receive assistance from the federal government.
Most Jewish groups support national hate crimes legislation. In recent years hate crimes targeting Jews caught the national spotlight, such as last April’s shooting in Pittsburgh that killed a Jewish woman, a white supremacist’s shooting rampage in Illinois last July and the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.
Some congressional Republicans oppose hate crimes legislation because, they say, they don’t want to create special classes of victims. There also is concern that the federal government might overstep its bounds and interfere with state and local officials in their investigations of hate crimes.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said he disagrees with his colleagues who believe any crime is a hate crime, saying hate crimes deserve a “broader response.” But an alternative bill that Hatch offered, which failed to pass through the committee, called for more study on hate crimes and more evidence that state and local law officers are not enforcing state hate crime laws already on the books.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said local police are reluctant to enforce the law. Schumer also accused some lawmakers of being reluctant to include sexual orientation as a new category of hate crime in the legislation.
“That’s the little rotten secret of this bill,” he said.
The chair of the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), said the legislation, also known as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2001, has bipartisan support in the Senate and the support of state and local law enforcement.
Several Democratic lawmakers, who said Americans are ready for hate crimes legislation, accused Congress of dragging its feet.
“We have been sitting on the sideline far too long,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “Crime is down, but not hate crimes.”
After several years of debating the issue, the U.S. House of Representatives went on record last September in support of hate crimes legislation, but the hate crimes provisions to the defense bill ultimately were taken out of the final version of the bill.
The Anti-Defamation League, which promotes tougher hate crimes laws across the country, welcomed the committee’s vote and called the legislation a “vital measure.”