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Trans-inclusive Hate Crimes Bill Moving Forward

April 20, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a.k.a. the Mathew Shepard Act, has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1997. The bill would make several changes to federal hate crime laws, chief among them an expansion of the law to include violent acts motivated by the actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim.

There is a good chance it will finally pass this year. With an expanded Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress this session and a President who was an original co-sponsor of the bill last year, Democratic leaders are pushing full force to get the bill signed into law.

At a breakfast meeting with bloggers in March, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said that the trans-inclusive hate crimes bill would be a legislative priority. The bill was introduced in the current 11th session of Congress on April 2nd and later this week the House Judiciary Committee will mark it up and send it to the full House for a vote.

The main pushback against the bill comes from religious groups. The Traditional Values Coalition, for example, says the bill “will be used to lay the legal foundation and framework to investigate, prosecute and persecute pastors, business owners, Bible teachers, Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, Christian counselors, religious broadcasters and anyone else whose actions are based upon and reflect the truths found in the Bible.”

The ACLU on the other hand says the bill, if signed into law, would contain the strongest free speech protection in the entire federal criminal code. From an ACLU letter to members of Congress:

On its face, the hate crimes bill punishes only the conduct of intentionally selecting another person for violence because of that person’s race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. The prosecution must prove the conduct of intentional selection of the victim. Thus, the hate crimes bill, like the present principal criminal civil rights statute, 18 U.S.C. § 245 (“section 245”), punishes discrimination (an act), not bigotry (a belief).

Here is the key provision from the bill text:

‘(d) Rule of Evidence- In a prosecution for an offense under this section, evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense. However, nothing in this section affects the rules of evidence governing impeachment of a witness.’

Here is Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-MA) statement in support of the bill and the Judiciary Committees’ vote this week.

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