By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
Colorado Democrats Thursday cheered the House passage of a bill that would make assaulting people because of their sexual orientation a federal hate crime.
But Republicans and those on the religious right say the expansion of hate crimes law would limit free speech and potentially make criminals out of preachers who speak out against gay lifestyles.
The House Thursday backed the measure 281-146. The language was attached to a $680 billion annual defense policy bill — a bill that Congress was essentially required to pass.
Republicans criticized the fact that Democrats attached the language — approved in April by the House — to the National Defense Authorization Act. Republican lawmakers almost always back defense bills, but many refused to do so because the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was attached to the bill.
“I have a long history of supporting our men and women in uniform, but I cannot give my support to a bill to which the majority in this Congress has cynically attached a hate crimes bill,” said Congressman Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs. “This legislation threatens the very freedoms of speech and religion that our soldiers are fighting to protect.”
The hate crimes law would expand hate crimes classifications to attacks against sexual orientation, gender identity, or mental or physical disability. The current law, enacted four decades ago, limits federal jurisdiction over hate crimes to assaults based on race, color, religion or national origin.
The bill would lift a requirement that a victim had to be attacked while engaged in a federally protected activity, like attending school, for it to be a federal hate crime.
The measure is named for Michael Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student who was murdered 11 years ago for his sexual orientation. Shepard’s foundation has an office based in Denver.
“Although Matthew’s case probably remains the most prominent, the most well-remembered hate crime against a gay or lesbian person, there have been many, many other crimes around the country,” said Jason Marsden, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “Crimes where local prosecution failed to deliver an appropriate result.”
Obama has signaled support
Marsden said his foundation is holding cheer until the president signs the bill into law. It wouldn’t be the first time similar legislation made its way through Congress but never became law. President George W. Bush helped stop such a bill in the last Congress, arguing existing state and federal laws were adequate. But President Obama has signaled his support.
The issue hits close to home in Colorado where in Greeley last April a man who murdered a transgender woman was convicted under the state’s hate crimes law.
Allen Andrade was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Angie Zapata. In addition to first-degree murder, he was convicted of a hate crime in the vicious and deadly beating of Zapata. It was the first time in the nation that a state hate crimes statute resulted in a conviction connected to a transgender person’s murder.
Congressman Jared Polis, D-Boulder, pushed his colleagues Thursday to pass the legislation. Polis, who is gay and one of the original cosponsors of the legislation, said the decision to support the bill was difficult for him because in backing the hate crimes language, he is also backing the defense bill, which ultimately authorizes continued war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Polis opposes military occupation in the two countries.
“Recognizing, however, that this authorization will inevitably continue war efforts inherited from the previous administration, I took great pause in deciding to support it,” the congressman said on the House floor. “But Mr. Speaker, I strongly support this authorization today because in doing so, Congress finally — after nearly a decade of debate — has the opportunity to also pass historic hate crimes legislation.”
“There is a difference between burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family and an act of simple arson,” continued Polis. “This legislation clarifies that our country has zero tolerance for hate crimes.”
Conviction of a hate crime carries stepped-up punishment, above and beyond that meted out for the attack. The bill would allow the federal government to help state and local authorities investigate hate crimes.
The measure now moves to the Senate for final consideration and then on to the president.
Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Denver, joined Polis in applauding passage of the legislation.
“Everyone in this country deserves the opportunity to live their lives free from intimidation and persecution,” said DeGette, who is vice-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus. “This act will provide state and local law enforcement agencies with resources they need to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, while also protecting the exercise of free speech under our Constitution.”
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters