Surprise outcome of museum shooting: gay rights

The gay community wants the same hate-crime protections that blacks and Jews have – and would get them in legislation before Congress now.

James Von Brunn, the white supremacist charged with murdering a Holocaust Museum security guard last week, could inadvertently have won a major victory for homosexuals in the United States.

This month the US Senate is considering an amendment to federal hate-crime laws, which would broaden the definition of a hate crime, offer federal money and training to local jurisdictions, and expand the laws' protections to gays, lesbians and transgender Americans.

Now, Congress is under greater pressure to acknowledge that gays face the same threats as the Jews and blacks targeted by Mr. Von Brunn, and it could take action as soon as this week.

A US District Court announced Monday that the injured octogenarian won't be well enough to be arraigned for at least another week. It's likely Von Brunn will be charged under existing federal hate-crimes laws that cover violent attacks based on race, religion, or creed.

Adding sexuality to that list, however, is problematic. Critics say the legislation could potentially criminalize pastors' sermons against homosexuality. A letter-writing campaign against the bill brought more than 500,000 complaints to the Senate.

But proponents are looking for a number of ways to get the bill passed, from folding the hate-crimes legislation into a separate bill to offering conservatives expanded gun rights as a compromise.

In a press conference Monday, however, Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada mentioned Wednesday's shooting and said he would bring the legislation forward by the end of the summer session of Congress in early August.

"Violent acts can physically hurt just a single victim and cause grief to loved ones. Hate crimes do more. They distress entire communities, entire groups of people," Senator Reid said.

The Washington Blade, a gay and lesbian newspaper, reported Monday that the legislation could be amended to the Travel Promotions Act, a bill to attract international tourists to America, which is scheduled to be voted on this week. The report cites a Democratic source as saying the legislation would be approved by Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the compromise option is being pushed by a pro-gun rights gay group in Washington, GOProud. The amendment to the hate-crimes bill would allow Americans with concealed-weapons permits to carry their guns across state lines.

Congress "should pass legislation that will empower individuals to defend themselves before they become another hate crime victim," wrote GOProud board member Christopher Barron in a commentary.

But recent attacks suggest that, in a departure from the past, guns are increasingly being used to commit hate crimes. Such a bill might ramp up gun violence, says Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

The goal of the bill's backers is to persuade crucial Blue Dog Democrats – those from conservative states – to vote for the legislation, experts say. The House passed the bill 249 to 175 on May 8. But the measure has yet to move out of committee in the Senate.

Part of the concern is that the new bill might introduce constitutional questions by expanding the sorts of cases that can be tried as hate crimes. The bill does not require that the defendant be inspired by hatred in order to convict. The defendant need only have acted "because of" someone's race, religion, creed, or sex.

This makes the law overbroad, critics say. The US Commission on Civil Rights, which opposes the bill, noted that rape cases would become hate crimes because victims are almost always chosen because of their sex.

It also increases the chances that defendants could be tried once in a state court for the crime and once in a federal court for the hate crime. This "pushes the envelope" on Americans' constitutional right to be free of "double jeopardy" – being tried twice for the same crime, says Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington.

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