WASHINGTON—In July, a serviceman fatally assaulted Pfc. Barry Winchell, believed to be a homosexual, at an Army base in Fort Campbell, Ky. A week earlier, police said, two brothers murdered a homosexual couple in Redding, Calif., and burned three synagogues in the Sacramento area.
The incidents have brought renewed efforts in Washington, D.C., to push the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, despite the deep reservations of many members of Congress. They say that to base federal penalties for crimes on motives, judges and juries will have to judge people's thoughts.
“We should act harshly against all those who murder,” Republican Sen. John Ashcroft, chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution, told the Register. “[But] government shouldn't sort out why you kill.”
Judiciary Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch disagrees. In a speech before the Senate on July 21, he announced that he had introduced an alternative to the original Hate Crimes Prevention Act. His similar measure focuses on local enforcement of hate crimes.
“It is no answer for the Senate to sit by silently while these crimes are being committed,” said Hatch, a Republican from Utah who entered the presidential race in June. “A crime committed not just to harm an individual, but out of the motive of sending a message of hatred to an entire community … is appropriately punished more harshly, or in a different manner, than other crimes.”
Hatch's proposal, which includes provisions on race and creed, won the support of most proponents of hate crimes. But it drew fire for not including a classification for homosexuals.
“No one should be a target for bias-moti vated violence because of their real or perceived sexual orientation,” said Kerry Lobel, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “Hate crimes should no longer have to be a fact of life for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people.”
Ashcroft agreed, but said that punishing the crime, but not guessing the motive, was enough. “I'm personally against elevating relationships of sexual orientation to the level of race or creed,” he said.
His home state of Missouri was the 22nd state to enact hate crime legislation based on sexual orientation. Ashcroft criticized Gov. Mel Carnahan, who signed the bill into law July 1. Ashcroft previously served as governor before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1994.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, author of the original Hate Crimes Prevention Act, had been expected to insert his measure into a federal spending bill. But the sudden death of John F. Kennedy Jr. may postpone that action until after the August recess. Another possibility is that Hatch's alternative might be inserted instead.
Controversial bills often get added to the spending bills that must be passed to keep the government operating. If neither bill succeeds during the spending process, it almost certainly will not become law this year.
Senators' support for hate crime legislation generally has divided along party lines, though Republicans Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have joined Hatch in supporting such a measure.
Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic monthly magazine Crisis, held a conference last year at the National Press Club on the subject of hate crimes. The recent murders do not justify a fundamental change in laws against homicide, he told the Register.
“I never understood the rationale for hate crimes legislation,” said Hudson. “If you kill someone, regardless of sexual orientation, racial class, you're guilty of the crime of murder.”
Prosecuting someone for hate is a step toward Orwellian-type thought control, Hudson warned. “Hypothetically you could be guilty of a hate crime for saying the Lord's prayer,” he said, because it makes pronouncements of moral truths that leave impressions on people's characters.
Hudson also opposed the legislation because juries might lose their impartiality. “These issues incite such passions in us,” he observed. “Juries need objectivity when weighing evidence.”
Hudson said reducing the barbaric act of murder to only racially motivated behavior is a “superficial look at human nature.”
“There are many multileveled reasons why they kill people,” he noted. “A crime is a crime regardless of why it is committed, regardless of what motivated it.” The law, he added, should focus not on “subjective motivation, but what objectively happens to people.”
Josh Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.