If someone uses a racial epithet during a simple assault, does that make it a federal case? Or if someone else disparages another's gender or sexual orientation in a threatening e-mail, should Uncle Sam get involved?
That is the essence of the debate over whether "hate crimes" should receive special attention by police and prosecutors.
The US Senate this week passed legislation that would expand the list of hate crimes beyond those tied to race, religion, and national origin to include those based on gender, sexual orientation, and disability. It also broadens the kinds of offenses to include more than just "federally protected activities" such as voting, jury duty, or school registration.
The FBI says nearly 8,000 such attacks - physical and verbal - occur each year, and other observers warn that the figure is increasing. For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization in Montgomery, Ala., recently analyzed law enforcement statistics and reported incidents at 140 schools of higher learning and concluded that "the level of campus hatred is far higher than is reflected in official FBI statistics."
"We tend to think of colleges and universities as enclaves of tolerance and open-mindedness," says Joe Roy, director of the center's Intelligence Project. "Sadly, they are also places where hatred seems to be flourishing."
Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, calls the Senate measure "a critical step to protecting millions of Americans from the hate and racial violence that is escalating in our society."
But opponents see the bill, and a companion measure in the House, as infringing on state and local powers.
In the wake of the lynching of a black man in Texas two years ago and the murder of a young gay man in Wyoming the same year, the number of states addressing the issue has increased to 41. Nevada now adds 25 percent to sentences given for felonies judged to be hate crimes. The Minnesota attorney general recently sued a St. Paul man who allegedly sent hate mail to several Jewish businesses and groups. Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers in New York passed a hate-crimes bill pushed by Gov. George Pataki (R).
Supporters of the Senate measure point out that states would continue to have the lead role in prosecuting hate crimes, but that federal authority is needed to make sure that happens.
Beyond the question of jurisdiction, many social conservatives also worry that the bill in effect grants "special rights" for homosexuals. Tom Minnery, vice president of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo., dubs the Senate-passed bill "a political ploy to legislate against thoughts rather than actions."
In particular, those who consider homosexuality to be a "lifestyle" that is sinful are concerned that they could be prosecuted for expressing their beliefs.
"If an individual's sexual behavior is a federally protected civil right, the logical conclusion is that those who object to certain behaviors based on moral, religious, or personal beliefs could be prevented from freely exercising their faith and beliefs," says Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based lobbying group.
But not all religious conservatives see it this way. Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, a devout Mormon who once opposed expanding the federal hate-crimes law (and who still thinks homosexuality is wrong), cosponsored the bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Using the biblical example of the woman taken in adultery, Senator Smith argues that "there is a present duty to protect anyone in the public square who would be stoned by the sanctimonious or the politically powerful."
While the hate-crime debate continues, the public remains ambivalent about gay rights. A year ago, Californians by a wide margin voted against official sanctioning of same-sex marriages. Yet in a recent poll there, 81 percent said they would not deny civil rights based on homosexuality, and the number of those opposing gay marriages dropped while those in favor increased.
The issue promises to color the presidential campaign. Last year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) refused to support a proposed hate-crimes bill in his state. On the other hand, Vice President Al Gore (D) calls hate crimes "fundamentally different from all other crimes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society