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Bipartisan group of senators push for hate crimes bill

Measure would cover race, religion, orientation, gender

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Edward Kennedy speaks at a news conference Thursday about a hate crimes bill he is sponsoring.
Sen. Edward Kennedy speaks at a news conference Thursday about a hate crimes bill he is sponsoring.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A bipartisan group of senators called on Congress Thursday to pass a hate-crimes bill, saying that such a move is necessary to curtail acts of violence directed at specific classes of people.

The legislation, opposed by many conservatives, would add tools for local and federal officials to use to prosecute crimes stemming from an individual's hostility toward another person because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or disability.

The legislation -- to be introduced as the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act of 2003 in the Senate Thursday -- would also enhance federal penalties for such crimes, and provide grants to help states and local governments prosecute such crimes. And it would allow the Justice Department to step in and prosecute such cases, even if local authorities decide otherwise.

"These kinds of crimes are more serious than others, more deserving of federal attention than others," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, one of the sponsors of the legislation and the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said a hate-crimes statute is on the books, but it is weak and does not, for example, cover gender or sexual orientation.

The Senate has twice before passed a hate-crimes bill, but it has not won House approval. Prospects for the bill don't appear any brighter this year.

Democrats have renewed the push for the legislation in the wake of recent comments by Sen. Rick Santorum -- who holds the No. 3 slot in the Senate GOP leadership -- about homosexuality.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Santorum said that if the Supreme Court recognized a right of privacy for gay sex, that would open the door to similar rights for incest, polygamy, bigamy and adultery.(Interview excerpts)

His comments were criticized by gay rights groups, Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans, but they were praised by conservative groups. The White House later signaled its support for Santorum's Senate leadership role.

Santorum was not mentioned at Thursday's news conference, but a few Republicans did endorse the bill and specifically mentioned what they saw as a need to include sexual orientation in the legislation.

"This is the right thing to do. It's the right time to do it," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon.

Matthew Shepherd, James Byrd

Several senators pointed to the 1998 case of Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten to death. Authorities say he was targeted by his assailants because he was gay. Senators also cited the 1998 case of James Byrd Jr., a black man from Texas who was beaten by three white men and dragged to his death from the back of a pickup truck. In that case, prosecutors said the men targeted Byrd because of his race.

Critics of federal hate-crimes legislation say state and local jurisdictions should decide how to prosecute cases. They also say that acts of violence are covered by other laws and point out that the assailants in the Shepherd and Byrd cases were convicted.

But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Massachusetts, said there is a "distinction" with hate crimes because they are directed not just at an individual, but at a whole class of people. And he said hate crimes, particularly those directed against Arabs and Muslims, have increased since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"It's a form of terrorism that this country has to free itself of," said Kennedy, who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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