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Oklahoma officially OK again Hate crimes nullification killed in committee
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Oklahoma officially OK again Hate crimes nullification killed in committee

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A bill intended to nullify federal protections for the LGBT community has been killed in the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee.

The nullification bill - SB 1965 - passed the Oklahoma Senate on March 10 by a vote of 39-6. It was intended to thwart enforcement of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Act, which added protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes laws.

The Oklahoma measure would have required state officials to destroy evidence in completed hate crimes investigations or to deliver it to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

The bill's author, Republican Sen. Steve Russell, said the measure was intended to prevent federal officials from taking over hate crimes cases and prosecuting them under federal rules. Unlike federal law, Oklahoma state law does not have specific hate crimes protections for LGBT residents.

Once the bill passed the state Senate, it was sent to the House, where Democratic Rep. Mike Shelton of Oklahoma City offered to be its prime sponsor.

Shelton then asked the House Judiciary Committee not to hold hearings on "his" bill. Since the committee failed to schedule a hearing by the April 5 deadline, it will not be brought up for a vote.

In the version originally passed by the Oklahoma Senate on March 10, the legislation contained a serious flaw. Russell had cited the wrong section of federal law, and inadvertently nullified federal protections for race and religion rather than sexual orientation and gender identity.

He subsequently rewrote the bill. In addition to citing the correct section of the federal law code, the new draft also allowed federal officials to acquire evidence by petitioning an Oklahoma state court.

Nevertheless, Shelton said the bill would prohibit Oklahoma law enforcement agencies from cooperating with any federal agency in the investigation of a federal hate crime, and might expose Oklahoma officials to federal obstruction of justice charges.

Russell claimed he had been misunderstood, and promised to reintroduce the bill.

"In my view, this is not the end of it," Russell said. "We need protections in state law. Speech needs to be protected unless it is directly related to a crime."

Laura Belmonte, vice president and co-founder of the LGBT group Equality Network, said the group will be monitoring the legislative session to ensure that Russell does not insert the bill's language into another measure.

"This is a bill that really denies Oklahomans equal protection under federal law," she said. "It puts law enforcement in the position of breaking federal law, directing them to obstruct access to evidence.

"It leaves the Lesbian, Gay, and Transgender community particularly vulnerable. If they are a victim of hate crimes in Oklahoma, the state hate-crimes law doesn't include sexual orientation or gender identity."

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