House passes hate crimes legislation on defense spending bill

WASHINGTON -- So-called "hate crimes" will be punished more severely under legislation passed Thursday by the House of Representatives.

The controversial measure tacked onto page 1,350 of a must-pass defense bill stiffens penalties for those convicted of committing violent offenses because of the "sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability" of the victim.

The provision expands an existing federal hate crime law, which covers race, religion and ethnicity. Now, hurting any member of these specially protected populations could lead to a 10-year federal prison sentence on top of other sentences.

"This law says it's no longer appropriate to treat gays as social pariahs," said Jay Hubbell, founder and treasurer of Fresno Stonewall Democrats. "I think it's important, because it will create momentum for full equality; it's saying gay people are entitled to the same civil rights as others."

Supporters and opponents, though, clash sharply over the prevalence of hate crimes as well as the wisdom of enhancing penalties to protect some populations more than others. On the one hand, the FBI counted a total of 7,624 hate crime incidents in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

But within individual cities, particularly those in the Central Valley, the number of reported incidents is low.

Fresno, for instance, reported a total of nine hate crimes in 2007, one of which targeted sexual orientation. Modesto reported 10 hate crimes that same year, four of them targeting sexual orientation, and Merced reported no hate crimes at all.

The FBI already has been collecting information on hate crimes targeting sexual orientation, although until now it hasn't been covered by the federal hate crimes statute. Hate-crimes legislation advocates believe the number of crimes, particularly targeting gays, is probably under-reported.

In 2006, for instance, Fresno reported three hate crimes targeting sexual orientation; neither Modesto nor Merced reported any. Throughout California, a total of 263 sexual orientation hate crimes were reported in 2007, with about one-sixth of them occurring in Los Angeles.

Advocates have been pushing for an expanded hate crimes bill for several years, under the name the Matthew Shepard and James J. Byrd Hate Crimes Act. Shepard was a 21-year-old gay student murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Byrd was a 49-year-old African-American killed in Texas in 1998.

By attaching the hate crimes measure to the $680 billion defense authorization package, lawmakers provided the legislation the momentum it lacked on its own.

"I'm opposed to hate crimes legislation, and I'm particularly opposed to the idea of putting it on a defense bill in a time of war," said Rep. Buck McKeon of Palmdale, the senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.

In an effort to address potential constitutional challenges, involving limits to congressional power, lawmakers specified that the hate crimes must be connected in some way to interstate commerce. This might include, for instance, using a gun that crossed state lines.

In April, Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, Jim Costa of Fresno and Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton voted for a standalone version of the hate crimes legislation, while Republican Reps. Devin Nunes of Visalia and George Radanovich of Mariposa opposed it.

The local lawmakers were the targets of local lobbying, with the Fresno Stonewall Democrats successfully urging Costa to support the hate crimes bill.

"Years ago, I was beaten up here in Fresno and left in a dumpster," Hubbell said, "so it's kind of personal."

The defense bill now goes to the Senate for final passage, and then to the White House.