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Back off veto threat.

Byline: The Register-Guard

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush reminded the nation that hate crimes have no place in America.

The president was right, of course. Hate crimes are vicious and patently reprehensible, whether Muslims are being attacked because of their religion or race - or gays are being targeted because of their sexual orientation.

That's why it's disappointing that President Bush has threatened to veto a hate crimes bill recently passed by the House. His threat presumably extends to a similar measure introduced in the Senate by Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., if it reaches his desk.

Some opponents argue that the legislation gives special rights to homosexuals. It doesn't. The existing federal hate crimes law already protects victims of violent crimes based on race, religion and national origin, but only when the victims are engaged in a federally protected activity such as voting or attending school. The proposed legislation would expand that definition to include acts of violence inspired by a victim's sexual orientation, disability or gender. And it would allow federal authorities to act whenever local and state law enforcement agencies are unable - or unwilling - to do so.

Existing federal law puts hate crimes under state and local jurisdictions. Under both the House and Senate versions of the hate crime bill, most hate crimes would still be prosecuted at the local level, with federal prosecutors becoming involved only with clearance by the Justice Department.

Opponents also argue that all violent crimes are hate crimes - and that hate crimes legislation criminalizes socially unacceptable beliefs and punishes people for what they think. That's a clever but fallacious argument. Hate crime laws don't criminalize socially unacceptable or politically incorrect beliefs; they merely increase the penalties for the very real crimes that can flow out of those beliefs.

Let's be clear: If the federal hate crimes law is expanded, Americans can continue to think whatever vile thoughts they want to about gays, transsexuals or transgenders, people with disabilities or women. It's only when extreme views cause an actual assault or killing that the new law would make them a matter of established motive. And motive has long been accepted as an important factor in determining the degree of punishment.

The primary motivation for the legislation is attacks on gays and lesbians. Smith and Kennedy have named their bill after Matthew Shepard, the gay college student who was brutally beaten and killed in Wyoming nearly a decade ago.

The problem of violence against homosexuals hasn't gone away. The FBI, which includes violent crimes against gays and lesbians in its hate crime statistics, reports that crimes based on sexual orientation accounted for 14.2 percent of reported "single bias" incidents in 2005.

President Bush should back off his ill-advised veto threat and clear the way for a long-overdue expansion of the federal hate-crimes law.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; President should sign hate crimes bill minorities homosexual
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 16, 2007
Previous Article:If not now, when?
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