By CHRIS JOHNSON, Washington Blade | Apr 8, 3:48 PM
After languishing in Congress for 12 years, hate crimes legislation is expected to see swift movement due to strong support from lawmakers and a sympathetic president in the White House.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the recent re-introduction of the bill in Congress was “one of the most important factors” in passing the legislation.
“The fact that we now introduced the bill in the House and are set to move in the next few weeks is going to … start this process, and hopefully it’ll be done and on the president’s desk in as expeditious a period as possible,” he said.
Becky Dansky, federal legislative director for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, similarly expected movement soon in the House on the legislation.
“We anticipate that things will move very quickly when the House comes back from recess,” she said. “The committee markup [will be] followed by floor consideration almost immediately.”
On April 2, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the hate crimes bill in the House. The bill, H.R. 1913, is officially known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As of Tuesday, the bill had 42 co-sponsors.
The legislation would allow the Justice Department to assist in the prosecution of hate crimes committed against LGBT people that result in death or serious injury. The federal government could lend its assistance to local authorities or take the lead if local officials are unwilling or unable to prosecute cases.
The bill also would make grants available to state and local communities to train law enforcement officials, combat hate crimes committed by juveniles and investigate bias-motivated violence.
Conyers’ office didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on the legislation. Alejandro Miyar, a U.S. Justice Department spokesperson, said staff in his department “support strengthening federal hate crimes protection and are working with Congress to do so,” but wouldn’t offer further details.
During his campaign last year, Barack Obama pledged to support the legislation. Before he took office, HRC called on Obama to push for passage of the bill within six months of starting his administration.
Solmonese said he still thinks it’s possible for Obama to sign the measure within the six-month timeline.
“I would think that if it happened slightly outside of that first six-month period, it would be a matter of scheduling the vote in both chambers and nothing more than that,” he said.
Solmonese and Dansky said they expected a House floor vote on the legislation later this month or in May, but the timeline was less clear in the U.S. Senate.
“Getting some signals in terms of when the House is moving,” Solmonese said, “will help inform what’s going to happen in the Senate.”
Although passage of the legislation is widely expected, Dansky said supporters of the bill “can’t afford to get lazy.” She said the strategy for passing the bill should involve Hill lobbying and grassroots mobilization.
Dansky said passage of the bill in the Senate “is not a given” and “there is a potential to face a filibuster.” She noted that support from moderate Republicans would be necessary to “hopefully avoid any obstructionist tactics” in the Senate.
Solmonese said winning approval of hate crimes legislation with the widest margin possible is important because it will help in passing future pro-LGBT legislation. “I think the strength and the health of this vote and of this fight is going to have a lot to do with taking on the next fight,” he said.
As for congressional hearings, Solmonese said they won’t take place in the House and he wasn’t certain about whether any would happen in the Senate.
Dansky also said she didn’t think hearings were needed in either chamber of Congress.
U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is expected to introduce the Senate version of the bill, but had not done so before Blade deadline. Anthony Coley, a Kennedy spokesperson, said the senator “plans to introduce this very important piece of legislation soon,” but didn’t offer a specific timeline.
Solmonese said he didn’t think there was any particular reason why Kennedy has not yet introduced the legislation. The senator has been battling brain cancer and has not always been on Capitol Hill, but Solmonese said he didn’t think the absence of the Senate bill was related to Kennedy’s illness.
Dansky said passage of hate crimes legislation is “in some ways contingent” on when Kennedy is available and said the senator has “identified this as a really important vote to him.”
“He’s made it very clear that this is something he cares deeply about and his staff has assured us that he very much wants to be here for it,” she said. “It would be a shame to move this and not have him be part of the celebration when it passes.”
Sexual orientation-inclusive hate crimes bills have languished in Congress since they were first introduced in 1997. The drive to pass legislation picked up steam after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was murdered in 1998 near Laramie, Wyo. In memory of Shepard, versions of federal hate crimes legislation have been sometimes known as the Matthew Shepard Act.
Passage of such legislation nearly occurred in 2007, when the House voted to approve legislation and the Senate voted to pass the measure as an amendment to the defense authorization bill. But the House refused to include it in the defense bill because it provided for Iraq war support. Anti-war lawmakers convinced the Senate to drop the hate crimes provision from the legislation.
Solmonese said he spoke with Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother and executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, last weekend at a fundraiser in Wyoming about how “painfully overdue this legislation is.”
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a decade since Matthew Shepard was murdered,” he said. “It’s incredibly inspiring to think after all this time, we’re poised to bring justice.”
But opponents of the legislation are campaigning against the bill and urging people to contact lawmakers to vote against it. On March 31, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, issued a letter to followers asking for opposition to the legislation because it “could lead to the criminalization of the biblical view of homosexuality in sermons and elsewhere.”
Perkins said that a hate crimes law could be “construed by many law enforcement officials and judges to include words that inflict emotional or psychological distress.”
“That means an ‘offended’ homosexual,” Perkins said, “could accuse a religious broadcaster … a pastor … Sunday school teacher … or other individual of causing emotional injury simply by expressing the biblical view that homosexual behavior is morally wrong and unhealthy.”
Solmonese said it’s “absolutely not” true that the legislation would restrict the freedom of religious leaders to condemn homosexuality, noting provisions in the bill explicitly protect First Amendment rights.
“It’s not palatable to be an outright bigot anymore, so they have to find something around the margins that they can distort the truth with,” he said.
Dansky said the Family Research Council letter represents a “misinformation campaign.”
“It’s completely inaccurate, unless their priest or reverend or religious leader is physically assaulting someone based on their sexual orientation while they’re giving that sermon,” she said.