WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress announced the upcoming introduction of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) at a recent bipartisan press conference on Capitol Hill. The HCPA would extend current federal hate crimes protection to cover gender, sexual orientation and disability. In the wake of several high-profile, brutal hate crimes in the past year, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act will help send a clear message that hate motivated violence is unacceptable and un-American, ac-cording to the Human Rights Campaign.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a key component of the effort to reduce hate crimes, and it sends the message that hate-motivated violence against minorities has no place in America, said HRC Executive Director Elizabeth Birch.
The murders of James Byrd, Matthew Shepard and Billy Jack Gaither highlight the need for Congress to pass this legislation and make it clear that our nation must no longer ignore this growing problem.
The press conference featured nine congressional co-sponsors: Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; Gordon Smith, R-Ore.; and Reps. Michael P. Forbes, R-N.Y.; John Conyers, D-Mich.; House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.; and Constance A. Mo-rella, R-Md.
Members of Congress pointed out that while crime continues to decrease nation-ally, hate crimes based on sexual orientation were up 8 percent in 1997, according to the latest FBI statistics. Sexual orientation was the third highest category of hate crimes behind race and religion and represented 14 percent of all hate crimes re-ported.
Calls for passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act accelerated in the aftermath of three brutal murders that rocked the nation. Last year, white supremacists dragged James Byrd to death behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas. University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyo. last fall in part because he was gay. Two men beat Shepard, tied him to a fence and left him to die in freezing weather. On Feb. 19, Billy Jack Gaither, 39, was lured from a bar by two men, beaten to death and burned on a pile of tires in Sylacauga, Ala. Two men, Charles Monroe Butler, 21, and Steven Eric Mullins, 25, confessed to killing Gaither because he was a homosexual Coosa County Sheriffís Deputy Al Bradley told the Associated Press.
Currently, hate crimes monitoring and enforcement consists of a patchwork of laws that offer citizens varying levels of legal protection depending on where they live. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws that in-clude sexual orientation. Twenty one states have laws that do not include sexual orientation. Eight states have no hate crimes laws at all.
Hate crimes against gay and lesbian Americans are rapidly increasing as more people choose to live their lives openly and honestly, said HRC Political Director Winnie Stachelberg. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is needed to stem the tide of this alarming trend and to bring uniformity to the maze of state laws that exist to-day.
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act will also allow local law enforcement authorities to utilize federal assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. This key aspect of HCPA is why it has broad support from notable law enforcement agencies and state and local leaders, including 22 state attorneys general, the Na-tional Sheriffs Association, the Police Foundation, former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
While high-profile cases such as Shepardís and Gaitherís gain a lot of publicity, anti-gay violence is far from uncommon. A study released in August by Dr. Karen Franklin, a forensic psychologist at the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Re-search and Training, suggests that harassment and hate crimes against gay students by their peers is commonplace. According to the study, nearly one-quarter of com-munity college students who took part in this survey admitted to harassing people they thought were gay. Among men, 18 percent said they had physically assaulted or threatened someone they thought was gay or lesbian. And 32 percent admitted they were guilty of verbal harassment.
An October 1998 CNN/Time poll found that 75 percent of Americans think vio-lence against gay Americans is a serious problem across the country. According to the survey, 68 percent of those polled said a similar attack could happen in their community. And 39 percent said anti-gay violence is a very serious problem, while 36 percent said it is a serious problem.
Two federal hate crimes laws include sexual orientation as a protected group. The Hate Crimes Statistics Act of 1990 requires the FBI to collect statistics on bias-motivated crimes. The Hate Crimes Sentencing Enhancement Act of 1995 provides for tougher sentencing when it is proven that the crime committed was motivated by bias.
The Human Rights Campaign is the nationís largest national lesbian and gay po-litical organization, with members throughout the country, effectively lobbies Con-gress, provides campaign support, and educates the public to ensure that lesbian and gay Americans can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community.