Although President Barack Obama vowed to sign a bill into law today expanding the legal definition of hate crimes to include crimes based on sexual orientation and disability, Michigan laws will remain less inclusive.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was named after two victims of hate crimes, will expand bias-motivated federal crimes to include crimes based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. Those additions will be added to the existing law, which includes race, skin color, national origin and religion.
Although the law will cover federal crimes, some worry the bill’s passage won’t be felt in Michigan.
Harold Core, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said most hate crimes are subject to state law and would not be covered by the federal law.
“Most of the crimes that would be most relevant to look at from the perspective of bias are state-level crimes,” Core said. “We still need state-level things.”
Michigan had the third highest number of reported hate crimes in 2007 — the most recent year FBI data was available.
Although Core said the national law would be a step in the right direction, it still would leave a gap between state and federal policy. Unless a crime motivated by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or disability was severe enough to be tried in federal court, state law wouldn’t allow it to be charged as a hate crime.
State lawmakers have proposed several pieces of legislation in both the Senate and the House of Representatives that would expand the laws, but the bills have yet to make it out of committees.
The House passed House Bill 4836 in May, which would include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation and disability, and the bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for approval before the full Senate can vote on it.
“I hope that it will send a message out that if someone was to consider doing something like a bias-motivated crime, that activity will not be tolerated,” said Rep. Robert Jones, D-Kalamazoo, who is the primary sponsor of the bill. “Hate crime is not just a crime against an individual, it’s a crime against a society.”
The Senate also has a bill, Senate Bill 497, which would extend Michigan’s definition of a hate crime. The bill currently is in the Senate Judiciary Committee and has not been scheduled for a hearing.
“We want to be known as a state who welcomes everybody,” said Kim Bowman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit, who introduced the bill. “People have a civil right to be who they are and not be attacked.”
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, could not be reached for comment.
Deanna Hurlbert, the assistant director of the MSU Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Resource Center, said she would support any legislation protecting the rights of any sexual orientation, but isn’t getting her hopes up about change.
“Until the legislation is actually passed, it doesn’t say anything to me,” Hurlbert said. “I’m not impressed by the fact that the bills have been introduced — I’m mortified that they haven’t passed.”
Bowman said she is unsure how the Senate will treat the bills, but Jones said he thinks the federal legislation could be a sign or more things to come.
“I think it’s a very good start,” he said. “I’d like to see this all the way through.”
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