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May 9, 2009 (Washington D.C.)--The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed H.R. 1913 by a vote of 249 to 175 on April 29. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate on April 28. If enacted, the bill would close gaps in a current law that authorizes federal aid in cases of hate crimes committed because of a person's race, color, religion or national origin. The new legislation would extend protection against violence to Americans targeted because of their gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

The bill applies only to bias-motivated crimes of violence. Although some opponents of the measure have called it a “hate crime against the First Amendment,” that argument is false. In fact, the measure does nothing to impact freedom of speech or religious expression. It would, however, enable prosecutors to bring hate crimes charges if attackers target women, gays, or disabled people.

The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is supported by more than 300 organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National Sheriffs' Association, Police Executive Research Forum, Police Foundation, National District Attorneys Association, NAACP, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Anti-Defamation League, Human Rights Campaign, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, American Association of People with Disabilities, People for the American Way, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ- Justice and Witness Ministries, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Conference, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and American Association of University Women.

Violent hatred and discrimination will not be tolerated in our society, plain and simple,” said Congressman Filner (D-San Diego), who voted for the measure. Among other San Diego-area Congressional members, Democrat Susan Davis also voted in favor, while Republican Congressmen Brian Bilbray, Duncan D. Hunter and Daryl Issa voted no.

“This bill will finally give our local law enforcement officers the tools they have sought to fully prosecute these terrible crimes and deter them in the future,” Filner said.”It’s long overdue.” Hate crimes are on the rise nationally, as well as the number of hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 926 hate groups in the U.S., including 84 in California.

Under current law, the federal government can investigate hate crimes only if they are motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act extends federal jurisdiction to hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability, and provides assistance to state and local law enforcement to streamline the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.

A similar bill passed the last Congress, but faced a veto from President George W. Bush. Now, with President Barack Obama in the White House, the measure is expected to be passed by the Senate and signed into law, giving law enforcement officers more tools to combat hate crimes, which are on the rise nationally.

The current bi-partisan legislation is supported by a broad coalition, including more than 300 law enforcement, religious, women’s advocacy, civil rights and disability rights organizations.

This legislation was inspired in part by the brutal 1998 murder of teenager Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming. Prosecutors argued that Shepard was targeted because he was gay. He was picked up by two men who robbed, pistol-whipped, tortured, and tied him to a fence in a remote,rural area. Found in a coma some 18 hours later, he died in a hospital without regaining consciousness.

Since his death, Shepard’s mother and others have lobbied Congress to expand the 1968 federal hate crimes law in honor of her son.

“It’s imperative that we listen to the calls from law enforcement that all victims must be treated equally, and send a clear message to the victims of hate crimes and their families: we are standing with you,” said Congressman Filner. “We simply cannot let tragedies like that of Matthew Shepard repeat themselves.”

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