Olga Vives

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s rights groups are making a last-ditch push to enact legislation that would expand existing “hate crimes” laws to include gender and other categories such as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

The bill cleared a major hurdle on May 4 when it passed in the House of Representatives.

But the White House quickly dampened advocates’ spirits with a veto threat on the same day, saying the bill is unnecessary because victims are covered under existing law.

White House aides also objected on the grounds that it would leave other classes of people, such as the elderly, members of the military and police officers, without similar status. Current law covers crimes based on race, color, religion or national origin.

But after 15 years spent lobbying for the bill, advocates are not giving up.

“It looks like it will be unlikely that it will become law, but we will keep working at it,” said Olga Vives, a vice president at the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C.

If the legislation becomes law, it would establish uniform protections for women and girls who are victims of hate crimes around the country. Currently, 28 states include gender in their own versions of hate-crimes laws.

If the bill fails, advocates say a hard-won opportunity to specifically address hate crimes against women and girls will be lost, or at least put on hold until a different president occupies the White House.

Lobbying for Passage

A coalition of women’s rights groups is mounting a public relations and lobbying campaign to push the bill through the Senate even though its chances of surviving a veto are slim. Together with groups representing gays and lesbians, minorities and people with disabilities, women’s rights advocates are lobbying senators in writing and in person and contacting media outlets to press for Senate passage.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not set a date to review the Senate version of the bill, and it is unclear whether supporters will be able to muster the 67 votes needed to override the threatened presidential veto. The House voted 237-180 for the bill, not enough to meet the two-thirds threshold to keep it alive.

Even if the bill fails to win veto-proof support, proponents say congressional passage would be a symbolic victory for women’s rights and would send a strong message against gender-biased hate crimes. It would also force a showdown with President Bush over a civil rights issue, which advocates say would harm his already low public approval ratings.

Bush rarely invoked his veto power when Republicans controlled Congress, using it only once to kill a bill to loosen restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. In the first five months of the current Congress, controlled by Democrats, Bush has vetoed an emergency spending measure because it included a timetable for withdrawal of troops in Iraq and has threatened to bring out the veto pen on issues ranging from federal funding of abortion to stem cell research to hate crimes.

“Is this going to be a president who now vetoes everything in front of him?” asked Roberta Sklar, spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington, D.C. “How many pieces of legislation that the people want will the president veto?”

Shepard Murder Frames Debate

Named after Mathew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998, debate over the hate crimes bill is often framed around the context of sexual orientation rather than gender.

Lesbian and gay rights groups are a driving force behind the legislation. On the day it passed the House, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the only openly gay man in the House, presided in the speaker’s chair.

Opposition to the bill, stemming largely from social and religious conservatives, has also centered around its provisions relating to sexuality.

Critics say the bill would grant gays and lesbians “preferential treatment” by elevating them to a specially protected class of victim. And they warn that the law could be used to gag religious clergy and advocates from expressing opposition to the “homosexual” lifestyle and other behaviors like cross-dressing.

“Victims are–and should be–treated equally in the justice system, regardless of their sexual orientation,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“This hate crimes bill would overturn this balance, creating second-class victims and a federal justice system that discriminates against grandmothers, children, women and men simply because they are heterosexual.”

Obscured Focus on Women

The focus on sexual orientation and gender identity has obscured the bill’s impact on women, said Jocelyn Frye, who serves as general counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a message that is lost in a lot of discussion and debate about the bill,” Frye said, adding that opponents “have in a very calculated way tried to play to the most divisive rhetoric in talking about the bill. Perhaps it’s not in their interest to talk about why this bill has implications for women more generally.”

Women could stand to gain substantially from the law.

The bill would add significant resources for prosecution of crimes in which the victims were targeted for their gender, as was the case in two high-profile shootings last fall in Pennsylvania and Colorado.

In the Pennsylvania crime, 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts IV killed five girls between 7 and 13 in a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster before he killed himself. And in Bailey, Colo., a gunman broke into a high school and took six girls hostage; he released four of the girls, and one was rescued before he killed the other girl and himself.

“As we saw in the Colorado and Amish school shootings, women and girls are sometimes singled out for cruelty and even murder because of their gender, yet federal law does not consider these acts to be hate crimes, as it would if the students had been targeted because of their race or religion,” said NOW president Kim Gandy.

The law does not stiffen penalties for all crimes against women; crimes of domestic violence or sexual assault would not necessarily fall under the category.

To qualify as a hate crime, sufficient evidence must be presented showing the perpetrator’s bias, there must be a link to interstate commerce and federal prosecutors must get permission to proceed from the Department of Justice.

The legislation would also give the federal government more leeway to assist local authorities in prosecuting hate crimes and to conduct federal prosecutions themselves. And it would require the Federal Bureau of Investigation to collect statistics on gender-based hate crimes.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For more information:

Pending Bills: Hate Crimes and Violence Against Women:

National Partnership for Women and Families:

National Organization for Women:

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