Hate crimes bill: could 2009 be the year?

Monday, April 27th, 2009

You have to give this to major Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League: they’re persistent.  A bunch of them have been lobbying for a major new hate crimes bill for more than a decade, and even though it has passed numerous votes in both Houses of Congress the measure never quite makes it into law.

This time around things could be different for the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which will come up in the House Wednesday or Thursday.  The biggest reasons: a stronger Democratic majority and a president who is  supporting the measure instead of promising to veto it.

To refresh your memory: the bill expands the range of existing hate crimes statutes to include victims of crimes based on sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability.

Guess which ones have provoked ferocious opposition from the religious right. Here’s a hint: it’s not disability.

That opposition, including the specious claim that the law would criminalize preaching from the pulpit against homosexuality, is undiminished, said Michael Lieberman, counsel to ADL’s Washington office and chair of a national hate crimes coalition.  Lieberman said opponents are once again “pulling out all the stops” to beat back the legislation.

But the political environment for the bill has changed dramatically, he said.

“Last time, we needed a super-majority, because President Bush promised a veto, but President Obama has been a supporter,” he said.

Also, the Justice Department is now working actively with supporters to “tweak the bill and make it as useful to them as possible,” Lieberman said.  “Attorney General Eric Holder has testified in support of it when he was deputy attorney general.”

And the bill continues to enjoy support from “every major law enforcement organization in the country,” Lieberman said.

The measure’s chances look good in the House; in the Senate, backers will have to decide whether to go for a free-standing bill or couple the hate crimes measure to other, critical legislation in an effort to thwart a possible GOP filibuster.

In addition to ADL, supports include the Reform movement, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, among others.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.