Attack Stirs Calls for Broadening Hate Crimes Law

The attack on patrons at a gay bar Thursday in New Bedford, Mass., has renewed calls for broadening federal hate crimes legislation to protect gays.

"The New Bedford incident is a perfect example of why we need a federal law," said Michael Lieberman, legal counsel for the Anti-Defamation League in Washington.

"The F.B.I. has no authority [in this case] whatsoever. The federal government cannot help. They have no authority to do it at all."

Massachusetts authorities are investigating the attack, which left three men hospitalized, as a hate crime.

"We feel horror and outrage over this act of senseless, hateful violence," said Andrew H. Tarsy, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. "People learn to hate. We are not born with it."

A Call for Change

Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has introduced broader hate crimes legislation in the Senate, said Thursday's attack was a "hateful act is a sad reminder of how far we have to go."

The initial federal hate crimes law passed in 1968 permits federal prosecution of discrimination crimes related to race, color, religion or national origin, but not sexual orientation. The victim must also be prevented from exercising a "federally-protected right," in order to apply this law in its early form.

Since then, there have been a handful of complements to the law, including a penalty enhancement statute that passed in 45 states and the District of Columbia in 1994 which punishes those who attack someone based on personal characteristics, including sexual orientation.

The 1968 law has "overly-restrictive limitations," said Tarsy. "There is [currently] no really omnibus federal hate crimes law."

In Sept. 2005, the House of Representatives passed a revision to the 1968 law which would expand federal protection to violent crimes based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identification and disability.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) represents the town of New Bedford, where Thursday's attacks occurred, and was one of the sponsors of the revision.

Kennedy said, "It's essential that we finally pass long overdue federal legislation to combat these despicable crimes."

Numbers from the FBI

Thirty-two states around the nation have hate crimes legislation in place that covers victims of bias crimes related to sexual orientation, including Massachusetts. A handful of other states are currently considering adding sexual orientation to current hate crimes law.

According to the YWCA, California (19.7%), New York (8%), New Jersey (7.9%), Michigan (5.7%) and Massachusetts (5.4%) had the highest number of hate crimes in the US in 2003, comprising almost half of all hate crimes nationwide.

In Massachusetts in 2003, there were 405 reports of bias-motivated incidents. Of these incidents, 69 were attributed to sexual orientation, matching the national trend at about 16 percent of total hate crimes.

In 2004, the latest year for which there are records, the FBI Hate Crimes Statistics chronicles 7,649 hate-related incidents, including crimes based on sexual orientation.

The FBI said the incidents resulted in more than 9,000 offenses cited by some 2,000 law enforcement agencies.

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