House Democrats ignored a White House veto threat on Thursday and narrowly passed a bill that would add gender and sexual orientation to the list of hate crimes punishable by federal law.
The floor debate took on a nasty tone before a 237-180 margin approved legislation that would increase federal law enforcement presence in local prosecutions involving bias-motivated attacks. Similar legislation is also moving through the Senate, setting the stage for a possible veto showdown with President Bush.
"This is an important vote of conscience, of a statement of what America is, a society that understands that we accept differences," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the only openly gay man in the House, presided over the chamber as the final vote was taken.
Rep. House Minority Leader John Boehner and other opponents warned that while intentions may have been good, the legislation would criminalize political speech and personal thoughts.
"This unconstitutional bill would effectively give the federal government authority to punish American citizens for 'thought crimes' — a concept that has Big Brother written all over it. There are already state and local laws on the books that punish violent crime against any and all Americans," said Boehner, R-Ohio.
The White House said state and local criminal laws already cover the new crimes defined under the bill and there was "no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement."
Fierce lobbying preceded the voted with civil rights groups pushing for years to add protections against hate crimes, and social conservatives denouncing the legislation as a threat to the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality.
They add that the bill singles out groups of citizens for special protection, while leaving other classes of people, such as the elderly, the military and police officers, without similar special status.
"Our criminal justice system has been built on the ideal of equal justice for all," said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, top Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "Under this bill justice will no longer be equal, but depend on the race, sex, sexual orientation, disability or status of the victim."
Republicans, in a parliamentary move that would have effectively killed the bill, tried to add seniors and the military to those qualifying for hate crimes protection. It was defeated on a mainly party-line vote.
Hate crimes under current federal law apply to acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin. Federal prosecutors have jurisdiction only if the victim is engaged in a specific federally protected activity such as voting.
The House bill would extend the hate crimes category to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability and give federal authorities greater leeway to participate in hate crime investigations. It would approve $10 million over the next two years to help local law enforcement officials cover the cost of hate crime prosecutions.
Federal investigators could step in if local authorities were unwilling or unable to act. The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay rights group, said this federal intervention could have made a difference in the case of Brandon Teena, the young Nebraska transsexual depicted in the movie "Boys Don't Cry" who was raped after two friends discovered that he was biologically female and then murdered after local police did not arrest those responsible.
But Dr. James C. Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, warned that the true intent of the bill was "to muzzle people of faith who dare to express their moral and biblical concerns about homosexuality." If you read the Bible in a certain way, he told his broadcast listeners, "you may be guilty of committing a 'thought crime."'
"It does not impinge on public speech or writing in any way," countered Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., pointing out that the bill reaffirms First Amendment and free speech rights.
Conyers said in a statement that state and local authorities will continue to prosecute the overwhelming majority of such cases and the bill requires the attorney general or another high-ranking Justice Department official to approve any federal prosecutions.
The legislation restates already-enacted penalties. Those using guns to commit crimes defined under the bill face prison terms of up to 10 years. Crimes involving kidnapping or sexual assault or resulting in death can bring life terms.
The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is named for Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who died after he was beaten and tied to a fence in Wyoming in 1998. His mother Judy, who heads a foundation in her son's name and has been a leading advocate of the legislation, addressed House Democrats before the vote to ask for their backing.
The Judiciary Committee cited FBI figures that there have been more than 113,000 hate crimes since 1991, including 7,163 in 1995. It said that racially motivated bias accounted for 55 percent of those incidents, religious bias for 17 percent, sexual orientation bias for 14 percent and ethnicity bias for 14 percent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.