May 18, 2007
Volume 35
Issue 20
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Civil Rights Leader Expresses Support for Hate Crimes Legislation
Civil Rights Leader Expresses Support for Hate Crimes Legislation
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) says, "This legislation allows local law enforcement officers who want to uphold the law, the resources and the federal help they need to do so."

WASHINGTON - Today, civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) published an editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that expressed his support for federal hate crimes legislation and debunked inaccurate arguments by opponents of the bill. The full text of today's editorial is below:

Hate crime victims need bill's insurance

by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA)
May 11, 2007

"The nation's democratic foundations of fairness and equal protection are shaken if one sector of society is treated differently from the others." You might think these are the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or the Rev. Joseph Lowery. Ironically, this is the wisdom of Jill "J.R." Labbe taken from an opinion column she wrote against a bill recently passed by the House that expands federal coverage of hate crimes ("Unequal justice: Hate crime no excuse" , May 9).

Labbe tows the opposition party line, saying this legislation is unnecessary because rape, murder, and assault are already criminal offenses. And she quotes President Bush, who believes there is "no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize" these crimes.

I wonder whether the family of Billy Ray Johnson would agree. In 2003, Johnson, a mentally challenged 44-year-old man, was lured to a party in Linden, Texas, ridiculed, beaten until he was unconscious and left in a pool of blood on the roadside to die.

He suffered severe, permanent brain damage. Unbelievably, a Texas jury recommended suspended sentences for the perpetrators. The judge gave the defendants 30- and 60-day jail terms. With the outcome of this case, the Linden courts are saying that assault is not so bad, brain damage is not so bad, brutality is not so bad when the victim is disabled.

The case of Kyle Skyock is another example. In 2001, after a night of heavy drinking, this 16-year-old was kicked by assailants, beaten with a baseball bat, and his head repeatedly banged against an SUV outside Rifle, Colo. He, too, was left on the roadside and discovered by a jogger the next morning. Skyock was comatose for three days and could not remember the details of his assault. Even though a teenager was later heard bragging about the beating on a school bus, police decided Skyock had rolled down a hill near the highway. That's how he obtained a punctured lung, three broken ribs and a fractured skull. No one was ever interviewed, arrested or prosecuted in this case. In a later civil suit, a judge determined Skyock was the victim of a hate crime.

In a nation that prides itself on the greatness of its democracy, there are too many stories such as these. In America, in 2007, it should not matter that Johnson was disabled, Skyock was Gay or that other hate victims are black, Arab, Jewish or Hispanic. This law does not add penalties for hate crimes and it does not interfere with the freedoms of speech or religion to criticize, preach against, condemn or even hate some people or the lives they choose. But it does ensure that when hatred leads to violence in this country, federal assistance is available to jurisdictions that are either unable or unwilling to prosecute these cases. Currently, the Justice Department can offer only limited assistance because it does not have the legal mandate to help. In the now famous Matthew Shepard case, the Laramie, Wyo., police department had to lay off five police officers and the department nearly went bankrupt trying the criminals involved. This legislation allows local law enforcement officers who want to uphold the law, the resources and the federal help they need to do so. That is why 25 state attorneys general support this bill along with more than 200 national organizations.

I would love to see the day when justice is evenhanded in America, but the evidence still reveals a great judicial inequality in this country.

And the history of hate in Rwanda, Bosnia, Germany, Sudan and even the United States, leaves no room for doubt that we cannot wink at or overlook hate crimes in a civilized society. That is a cancer that destroys the very foundation of justice and eats away at the fundamental principles of our democracy. We may not agree with all the ways some of our fellow citizens live. We may not agree with everything they think. But I want to live in a truly just society, one that values the dignity and the worth of every human being, regardless of our differences. And I think most Americans do, too.

The Human Rights Campaign is America's largest civil rights organization working to achieve Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender equality.

An HRC press release

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