Momentum builds for updates to hate-crimes law

In light of the recent gay-bashing incident in Philly, local leaders in both the state and federal legislatures are building political momentum to instate policy change.

Pennsylvania’s hate-crimes law does not currently cover sexual orientation or gender identity; they were added in 2002 to the law, but later repealed on a technicality. But two bills now before the state legislature are looking to reinstate LGBT protections. 

House Bill 177 and Senate Bill 42, introduced Jan. 4 and Jan. 22, 2013, respectively, both seek to amend the state’s definition of “ethnic intimidation” to include a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender or gender identity.

The Senate version is led by state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-38th Dist.), who came out Tuesday at a press conference about the legislation. The House version is led by state Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-170th Dist.) and has 48 cosponsors, seven of whom signed on since the Sept. 11 attack.

The following Philadelphia-area state lawmakers, all Democrats, have not sponsored HB 177: Reps. James Clay, Jr. (179th Dist.), Angel Cruz (180th Dist.), Dwight Evans (203rd Dist.), William F. Keller (184th Dist.), Michael P. McGeehan (173rd Dist.), J.P. Miranda (197th Dist.), James R. Roebuck, Jr. (188th Dist.), John P. Sabatina, Jr. (174th Dist.) and Ronald G. Waters (D-191st Dist.).

State Rep. Brian Sims (D-182nd Dist.) will hold a public hearing of the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee on the issue of LGBT hate crimes at 2 p.m. Oct. 2 in the Kimmel Center, Hamilton Gardens at 300 S. Broad St. The public is welcome to attend.

Support for HB 177 is growing in municipalities outside Philly as well.

On Monday, the Jenkintown Borough Council unanimously passed Resolution No. 2014-27, supporting House Bill 177 and urging its adoption by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

George Locke, Jenkintown borough manager, said the “lack of hate-crime legislation in light of the horrible attack that took place in Philly recently moved us to show our support and cause a change in the legislation. We are a diverse community. Elected officials in Jenkintown fully support diversity and tolerance. The common statement we hear from people is shock and disbelief that the state law does not already provide for this protection.”

Momentum is also building on the national level, as U.S. Congressman Robert Brady (D-First Dist.) last week announced plans to introduce legislation that will amend the current federal hate-crimes law to extend coverage to LGBT individuals.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 created — among other things — a new federal law that criminalizes willfully causing bodily injury — or attempting to do so with fire, firearm or other dangerous weapon — when the crime was committed because of a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. But — in a caveat that could limit the application of this act to the gay-bashing incident in Philly — in order to obtain a conviction, the government must prove that the crime was in or affected interstate or foreign commerce.

Brady’s bill would rectify that nuance to treat sexual orientation and gender identity on par with other included characteristics like race and religion.

“My bill is simple. It eliminates extraneous requirements — like the crime having to take place on federal property and the interstate commerce clause, etc. — and essentially makes hate crime a federal offense. Period,” the congressman said.

Brady said he already has the support of fellow Congressman Patrick Meehan (R-Seventh Dist.).

“There’s more to come, though,” he said. “We’re in recess now, but I’m still going office to office, and when we’re back in session I’ll be out on the House floor going member to member.”

Brady said he expects the recent gay bashing in Philly to strike a chord with the other members.

“It’s extremely unfortunate that this incident had to happen in order for us to pay attention to the issue. But I think this story will really engage my colleagues on both sides, and garner a lot of bi-partisan support,” he said.

Current law still does not prevent state or local law enforcement from requesting assistance — should they need it — from the Attorney General on potential LGBT-related hate crimes. Forms of assistance include technical, forensic, prosecutorial or any other form of assistant in the criminal investigation or prosecution. Nor does it prevent local law enforcement from requesting grants for extraordinary expenses associated with the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes, or from requesting additional personnel.

HB 177’s current Philadelphia-area cosponsors include Democratic Reps. Sims, Louise Bishop (192nd Dist.), Kevin J. Boyle (170th Dist.), Vanessa Brown (190th Dist.), Michelle Brownlee (195th Dist.), Mark Cohen (202nd Dist.), Maria Donatucci (185th Dist.), Jordan Harris (D-186th Dist.), Stephen Kinsey (201st Dist.), Stephen McCarter (154th Dist.), Michael O’Brien (175th Dist.), Cherelle Parker (200th Dist.) and Rosita Youngbloood (198th Dist.), and Republican Rep. Thomas Murt (152nd Dist.).

SB 42 is currently sponsored by all eight Democratic Philadelphia-area state senators: Lawrence Farnese Jr. (First Dist.), Vincent Hughes (Seventh Dist.), Shirley Kitchen (Third Dist.), Michael Stack (Fifth Dist.), LeAnna Washington (Fourth Dist.), Anthony Williams (Eighth Dist.) and Christine Tartaglione (Second Dist.).