Religious Leaders Hope to Push Hate Crimes Bill Through Pipeline

Perhaps the power of faith can finally move the hate crimes bill through the legislative process.

Jewish, Christian, Muslim and other religious leaders were hoping they could do just that as they joined together Wednesday to press the U.S. Congress to take action on anti-bias legislation.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, noted the biblical passage that one cannot stand by as a neighbor’s blood is shed.

“We cannot stand idly by while our brothers and sisters, parents and children, live in fear that racism, bigotry, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia continue to go unchecked,” Saperstein said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. “We cannot stand idly by while hate crimes destroy the sense of community that we and so many others have worked so hard to build.”

The Interfaith Alliance, a nonpartisan, clergy-led grass-roots organization, released a letter signed by more than 500 clergy members supporting a bill that will begin to wend its way through Congress.

The bill has been brought up time and again during the past several years, but always falls short of final passage.

The legislation, known as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, authorizes 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.

“Americans must live in principle and practice the values of liberty and justice for all,” said Imam W. Mahdy Bray.

Hate crime legislation would be a “great step toward eradicating hate in our society,” said Rev. Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance.

The hate crimes bill has not changed much in recent years, but the situation surrounding it has.

Under the Clinton administration, the president and the Justice Department solidly backed the legislation, but today the support of President Bush and his Justice Department is questionable.

“Then hopefully we can convince the president of its wisdom,” Kennedy said. Last year, the Senate passed a hate crimes amendment, only to see the provisions stripped out of a defense bill by Republican legislators at the last minute.

The House of Representatives has been a tougher nut to crack for the bill’s supporters, although there are enough legislators there on record in support of anti-bias provisions to pass a bill.

Supporters of the bill fear the House Republican leadership would block a move to bring the measure up as a separate standing bill, forcing supporters to tack the hate crimes provisions onto legislation that must be passed for the government to function.

Most Jewish groups support national hate crimes legislation.

In recent years hate crimes targeting Jews caught the national spotlight, such as the April 2000 shooting in Pittsburgh that killed a Jewish woman, a white supremacist’s shooting rampage in Illinois in July 2000, and the 1999 shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.

Some congressional Republicans oppose hate crimes legislation because they don’t want to create special classes of victims, they say.

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.

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