After years of unconscionable delay, the House has approved legislation that would, for the first time, extend federal hate-crimes law to give substantive coverage to gay people. The act would be an important step forward in protecting all minorities from violence and a tribute to a young man whose life was cut short by bigotry. The Matthew Shepard Act, as the bill is known in the Senate, would provide increased funding to state and local authorities to prosecute a wide range of hate crimes — ones motivated by race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. It would also authorize the federal government to prosecute these crimes when states fail to do so. The biggest beneficiaries would probably be African-Americans, who make up the largest group of hate-crime victims. It would also help Hispanics, who have been increasing targets of anti-immigrant hatred. The bill's opponents have focused on the protection of gay people, who were the victims in more than 16 percent of the hate crimes reported by the FBI in 2007. In addition to providing more resources, the act would serve an important public education role, underscoring the seriousness and horror of these crimes. After the House's strong vote — 249 to 175 — in favor of the bill, the Senate needs to follow. — New York Times editorial
The bill targets actions we would all like to eliminate — physically injuring or trying to injure someone with "fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device." But it's hard to imagine that it would reduce the prevalence of such conduct, which is already 1) really, really illegal and 2) subject to harsh penalties. This legislation would add extra punishment for attacks designated as hate crimes. But if a criminal is not deterred by the fear of five years behind bars, he's probably not going to be pushed onto the straight and narrow by the prospect of six. The proposed federal law is mostly a curiosity, since it applies only to hate crimes in which the attacker singles out a victim on the basis of race, religion or national origin and is trying to interfere with the victim's participation in one of six federally protected activities — going to a public school, applying for a job, serving as a grand juror and so on. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., wants to eliminate these restrictions because they make it hard for the feds to go after hate crimes. But the change might not go down well at the Supreme Court. So a federal hate crimes law may go from being a ban on extremely rare offenses to being unconstitutional. Some achievement. If federal licensing laws required disclosure of the ingredients in congressional legislation, here's what the label on this one would say: 90 grams of empty symbolism and 10 grams of needless duplication. — Steve Chapman, Chicago Tribune columnist
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