Several Jewish groups last week welcomed the Senate’s approval of a bill that would broaden the federal government’s authority to prosecute criminals who commit acts of violence or intimidation against individuals because of the victim’s gender, disability or sexual orientation.
The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, which passed the Senate last week by a margin of 65 to 33, is significant in two ways, said Michael Lieberman, legal counsel to the Anti-Defamation League, which enthusiastically lobbied for the bill.
First, it would eliminate restrictive obstacles to federal involvement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. Existing laws prevent the government from getting involved in many cases in which individuals kill or injure others because of racial or religious bias. Under the current laws, federal involvement is triggered only if the government can prove that the crime occurred because of a victim’s membership in a designated group and also because the victim was engaged in certain federally protected activities, such as serving on a jury or attending public school.
Second, the act would, in certain circumstances, authorize the Department of Justice to help local prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases in which the bias violence occurs because of the victim’s sexual orientation, gender or disability. Federal law does not provide authority for involvement in such cases.
In the previous Congress, the measure enjoyed bipartisan support but was blocked by the House leadership and Republicans in the Senate. Now, to a large extent thanks to the efforts of Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, the bill’s co-sponsor, Senate Republicans have lifted their blockade to allow a vote on the bill.
“Hate crimes legislation sends a signal that violence of any kind is unacceptable,” said Smith in a statement following the vote.
Congressional staffers speculated that the 19 Republican Senators who supported the bill did so to show that even though they and their party may support a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, they are as intolerant as anyone when it comes to violence against gays.
Supporters of the bill say that federal involvement in hate crimes cases against gays is important because many states don’t have adequate legislation regarding crimes that are motivated by bias against sexual orientation, gender or disability. Only 30 states include sexual-orientation-based crimes in their hate crimes statutes; 28 states include coverage of gender-based crimes, and 30 states include coverage of disability-based crimes. The bill is expected to reach the House of Representatives this week, and is likely to pass.