In a surprise 65-33 vote, the U.S. Senate passed legislation in June that would extend the Federal hate crimes law to include hate crimes based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender and disability, according to the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations. The law currently covers race, religion, and national origin.
The Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act (LLEEA)--formerly known as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act--was added as an amendment to the 2004 Defense Department Appropriation Bill currently being debated in the U.S. Senate. Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, an Episcopalian who is chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, voted in favor of passage. In 2000, Warner opposed similar legislation because it was tied to the defense spending bill. At the time, in conversations with Bishop Neff Powell of Southwestern Virginia, Warner indicated that he would support hate crimes legislation if it were a stand-alone bill. Powell has long been active in supporting hate crimes legislation.
While violent crime continues to decrease nationally, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports show hate crimes increasing.
"Passage of this legislation will help protect the lives of people in our communities," said Powell. "I've been concerned about hate crimes in our country since the death of Matthew Shepard and have had a heightened awareness in the wake of violence in my own community of Roanoke, Virginia."
The LLEEA has been the subject of a number of Episcopal Public Policy Network alerts since passage of General Convention resolutions in 2000, also in the wake of the tragic death of Wyoming youth Matthew Shepard. In May of 2002, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold; the Rev. George Werner, president of the House of Deputies; and the Rev. Rosemari Sullivan, secretary of the General Convention, joined more than 200 Episcopal clergy and 21 bishops in a letter urging members of Congress to pass hate crimes legislation.
According to the Office of Government Relations, the next hurdle for proponents of hate crimes legislation is to ensure that it survives a conference between the House and Senate later this year. Swift bi-partisan passage of the LLEEA occurred as news reports indicate that Senate GOP leadership is planning a vote on the controversial Federal Marriage Amendment sometime in July.
As Congress moves closer to an extended summer recess for party conventions and a heated political season, "must-pass" legislation, like the Defense Appropriations bill, increasingly becomes the vehicle of choice for popular and sometimes controversial legislation. A number of Episcopal legislative priorities may follow a similar path, including Ag Jobs legislation, funding for efforts to combat the Global HIV/AIDS pandemic, Head Start reauthorization, Child Care funding, a Minimum Wage increase, and funding for the UN Population Fund.