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White House threatens to veto hate-crimes bill

Story Highlights

• Bill expands hate-crime laws to include sexual orientation, gender-based attacks
• White House says state and local law already cover such crimes
• Critics of bill say it would have chilling effect on clergy
• Supporters point out bill applies only to violent crime
From Carol Costello
CNN Washington Bureau
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House has threatened to veto a bill passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday that expands hate-crime laws to include attacks based on sexual orientation or gender.

Under current law, hate crimes are subject to federal prosecution only if the acts of violence are motivated by race, religion, color or national origin. Federal prosecutors get involved only if the victim is engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting or participating in interstate commerce.

The White House says there is no need for the expanded bill because state and local laws already cover the crimes it addresses, and there is no need for federal enforcement.

In addition to allowing greater leeway for federal law enforcement authorities to investigate hate crimes, the House bill -- which was passed on a 237-180 vote --provides $10 million over the next two years to aid local prosecutions.

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, but no date has been set for a vote.

Addressing freedom of speech

Critics of the bill say it would have a chilling effect on clergy who preach against homosexual behavior.

"We believe that this legislation will criminalize our freedom of speech and our ability to preach the gospel," said Bishop Harry Jackson of Hope Christian Church in Lanham, Maryland.

Supporters disagree. The bill, they say, applies only to violent crime and, in fact, specifically addresses freedom-of-speech issues.

"Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution," the bill says.

Intense debate on the House floor

House representatives got into a heated exchange Thursday as they debated the bill.

"They [hate crimes] are more serious than a normal assault because they target not just an individual, but an entire group," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York.

Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Florida, said it is unfair to single out specific groups for protection under the law.

"What it does is to say that the dignity, the property, the life of one person gets more protection than another American. That's just wrong," he said.

Both sides cited the case of Matthew Shepard of Wyoming, whose brutal 1998 murder was linked to his sexual orientation.

"Matthew's death generated international outrage by exposing the violent nature of hate crimes," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, the only openly lesbian member of the House of Representatives.

But Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, argued that Shepard's killers got harsh sentences without hate-crimes provisions.

"Those perpetrators that did that horrible act -- both got life sentences under regular murder laws," he said.

If President Bush vetoes the bill, it would mark the third veto of his presidency. His second came Tuesday, when he vetoed a $124 billion war spending bill that included a deadline for U.S. troops to pull out of Iraq.

If President Bush vetoes the hate-crimes bill, it would mark the third veto of his presidency.



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