Thursday February 21 05:48 AM EST
Senators urge vote on hate crimes bill
By Dan Kerman, Gay.com / PlanetOut.com Network
SUMMARY: A bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Thursday urging him to bring a hate crimes bill to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., on Thursday urging him to bring a hate crimes bill to the Senate floor for a vote as soon as possible.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (news), D-Mass., and Sen. Gordon Smith (news), R-Ore., passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee (news - web sites) in July of last year by a vote of 12 to 7. It would amend the current law, which permits federal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by race, religion, national origin or color if the victim was engaging in one of six "federally protected" activities.

Called the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (S. 625), the bill would remove the federally protected activity requirement and add sexual orientation, gender and disability to the covered categories of hate crimes.

"It is long past time to give stronger tools to law enforcement officials dealing with hate crimes, and to bring the federal hate crimes statute up to date," the senators wrote in the letter to Daschle. "Knowing of your strong support for this legislation and the principles behind it, we look forward to working with you for a Senate vote as soon as possible."

Though overall serious crime remained unchanged nationally from 1999 to 2000, with the crime index at its lowest level since 1978, the senators say reported hate crimes continued to increase 3.5 percent during the same period.

Hate crimes legislation has passed the Senate twice in the past three years. David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay political organization, says the bill is likely to pass again this year. However, he says, the House continues to be a roadblock.

"The leadership has not been supportive of the legislation and has been standing in its way," Smith told the Gay.com/PlanetOut.com Network. He says House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., are opposed to the legislation, and they decide which bills are sent to the floor.

"So there is a need to be creative in moving legislation through," Smith said. "The obstacles are there, but we will do everything we can to overcome them," he said.

Another bill HRC is keeping its eye on is ENDA, The Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Federal employment discrimination protections are currently based on race, religion, gender, national origin, age and disability. ENDA adds sexual orientation to the list, thereby extending fair employment practices to the LGBT community. The bill has already been introduced in both the House and the Senate, and Smith says Senate hearings should take place in the next couple of months. He says a date will be announced shortly.