For the third time, the U.S. Senate passed legislation on Tuesday that would add sexual orientation, gender, and disability as protected categories in federal hate crimes law, which currently covers only religion, race, color, and national origin. The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, or LLEEA, cleared the Senate on a bipartisan 65-33 vote, with 18 Republican senators voting for it, as an amendment to this year’s Department of Defense appropriations bill.
But, as in years past, the measure is not expected to make it out of the House of Representatives to the president’s desk.
“The Republican leadership has made it very clear. They have told us we won’t even get to vote on the bill,” said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), one of three openly gay members of the House.
Pres. George W. Bush has also indicated he would veto the measure if it did come before him. White House spokesperson Claire Buchan said that the president believes that “all violent crime is hate crime” and doesn’t see a reason for special protections for gay and lesbian people.
But the country’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), sees the passage as a major victory and held nationwide conference calls to publicize it. The Washington-based group’s director, Cheryl Jacques, said, “Our staff worked the Hill for so long We saw this as a win. We knew we had the votes. We wouldn’t come to work everyday if we didn’t believe we could advance legislation.”
She added that, when passed, the legislation “will protect all members of the LGBT community.”
Advocates, such as Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays spokesperson Alice Leeds, questioned Bush’s analysis of hate crimes measures, but also Jacques’ assessment of the bill’s strength.
“So, Gwen Araujo and Matt Shepard and Sakia Gunn are just your typical violence victims, uh-huh. It’s an insult,” she said, referring to three particularly gruesome murders of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Leeds also challenged the claim by HRC that, if passed, the measure would protect all LGBT people, since it does not contain any specific protections for transgendered people. Rather, it refers to “perceived gender,” which Jacques says she thinks would be interpreted in the courts to include transgendered crime victims.
But, transgender activists like Gwen Smith, the founder of the “Remembering Our Dead Project” in San Francisco called the language “weak,” agreeing with many fellow advocates that protections based on “gender identity and expression” are required. HRC’s previous executive director Elizabeth Birch very publicly pushed for such language last year, but even congressional advocates such as Frank said that the change was not possible in a House and Senate dominated by conservatives. Some observers noted that the argument that the word “gender” would provide protection represented a best-case scenario.
Frank said the supporters of enhanced hate crimes legislation in the House would probably introduce and succeed in passing a “motion to instruct,” which they did last year, that is merely a statement of support for the bill. Frank predicted, that the Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) would once again not allow any formal House action on the measure.
Even as the Senate moved affirmatively on hate crimes, observers voiced the expectation that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) will force a floor vote in the Senate on a proposed federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage sometime in mid-July. A vote scheduled then would make Democrats take a stand on the issue just before their presidential nominating convention in Boston.
Senate Republican Conference Chair Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, however, emphasized that the leadership is not yet ready to announce a date.
“We are sort of running the traps on this right now, and seeing what kind of response we are getting,” Santorum told Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper.
Frank confirmed that he is certain that the amendment will be voted on in the Senate, but is confident that its proponents do not have the 67 votes necessary to amend the Constitution. If it is defeated there, he does not believe the Republican leadership will bring it up in the House.
In California, San Francisco’s out gay assemblymember, Mark Leno (D.), has introduced a resolution condemning the federal amendment that would put the legislature in the country’s largest state on record as opposing it. Leno expects easy passage through both houses of the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. Any amendment that clears Congress will have to then be approved by three quarters of the states’ legislatures.
One day after trumpeting the Senate’s passage of hate crimes legislation, HRC finally issued an endorsement that had long been anticipated—that of John Kerry for president. In a Wednesday conference call, Jacques credited Kerry with a long record in support of LGBT rights, from his freshman sponsorship of a gay civil rights bill in 1985, to his opposition to the military’s 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards gays, to his 1996 reelection year vote against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
While Kerry has spoken out against a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he supports a proposed Massachusetts state constitutional ban that would overturn that state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruling that made his state the first in the nation with same-sex marriage in May.
Leading LGBT advocates, including Jacques, Birch and her partner Hilary Rosen, former Clinton adviser David Mixner, and Jeff Soref, the former co-chair of the Empire State Pride Agenda, will host the first fund-raiser to recognize those senators opposing the federal marriage amendment on June 21 at the Washington home of Senator Ted Kennedy . The list of those up for reelection this year to be honored include New York’s Charles Schumer, California’s Barbara Boxer, and seven others.