Senators voted Thursday morning to give the federal government more jurisdiction to prosecute hate crimes and included protections for gay, lesbian and transgender victims, attaching the measure to an annual defense policy bill.
Sixty Senators -- just enough to override a Republican filibuster -- voted to attach the Matthew Shepard Act, named for the gay Wyoming college student murdered in 1998, as an amendment to the 2008 Department of Defense authorization bill. The measure was sponsored by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore.
Kennedy argued this morning, in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, that the law is necessary because hate crimes are on the rise in the United States.
"Hate crimes are increasing. They are not diminishing in the United States of America," Kennedy said. "Local officials do not have the tools to deal with the most vicious kind of attacks."
Kennedy said the law would help balance U.S. domestic policy with its foreign policy. "We should be attacking the problems of hatred at home like we are attacking the problems of hatred abroad."
The measure would give the federal government more leeway to investigate and prosecute hate crimes and increase federal jurisdiction on such crimes. More important, it would expand the groups protected under current law to include such categories as disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
"Today's Senate vote sends a bold and unmistakable message that violent crimes committed in the name of hate must end," said Judy and Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard's parents, in a written statement. "The Matthew Shepard Act is an essential step to erasing hate in America, and we are humbled that it bears our son's name. It has been almost nine years since Matthew was taken from us. This bill is a fitting tribute to his memory and to all of those who have lost their lives to hate."
Supporters of the bill drew the ire of some Republicans, who said the bill was not germane to the defense bill and could jeopardize Pentagon programs if President Bush decides to veto it. The White House has not yet issued a formal position on the measure.
Still, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans would scuttle the bill if the hate crimes measure is included, putting Pentagon programs at risk.
"It puts too many programs at risk for a nongermane social policy," he said.
The hate crimes bill has been brought up for votes in four previous Congresses, most recently in 2004, when it got an emphatic 65 votes and was attached to that year's defense policy bill. But it was dropped when House and Senate negotiators reconciled their differing versions of that year's bill. Supporters, however, point out that in 2004, the Republican-controlled House did not support the bill. With a Democratic-controlled House, the hate crimes legislation could make it through a conference on the bill this year.
As he stood in front of a picture of a uniformed Navy Seaman Allen Schindler who was brutally murdered by a shipmate in Japan in 1992, Smith said it is symbolically appropriate to attach the law to the defense authorization bill.
There are two main sticking points for some Republicans.
Opponents of the bill expressed concern that it makes acts perpetrated against members of the gay and transgender community federal crimes. They said the bill would create a new class of crime -- crimes against people based on the victims' perception of their own sexuality and not on a positive legal definition -- essentially a "thought crime."
"It makes a crime based on the perpetrator's assessment of the victim's self-perception," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, this morning on the Senate floor.
Hatch also argued that the law is unnecessary because laws in 46 states already prosecute hate crimes. He said the version passed today by the Senate is "unwise, unnecessary and unconstitutional."
"Those who perpetrated the Shepard murder in Wyoming," Hatch pointed out, "are already sentenced to death or in prison for their lives under state law.… There is no evidence that state governments are incapable of prosecuting these crimes or that they are failing to do so," he said.
Thirty-nine Republicans opposed the bill. Sen. John McCain was the only absent senator.
Republicans who supported the amendment were: Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Richard Lugar of Indiana, Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, George Voinovich of Ohio and John Warner of Virginia.