First Big Gay Rights Test

Are Federal Hate Crime Laws a Done Deal?

congressWhile the action for gay rights has mostly been focused on state issues so far this year, the first major federal fight for gay rights is beginning to heat up, but many gay activists are already crowing about victory.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (which we will now and forever refer to by the unwieldy initialism LLEHCPA), which would authorize the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute certain bias-motivated crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability was introduced last week in the House and is expected to be introduced by presidential pooch-giver Ted Kennedy in the Senate.

Everyone says they have the votes, but does a filibuster loom?

The Washington Blade spoke with HRC director Joe Solomonese, whose group has set-up a website called Fight Hate Now to raise awareness about the bill. According to the Blade:

“Solmonese said he still thinks it’s possible for Obama to sign the measure within the six-month timeline.

“I would think that if it happened slightly outside of that first six-month period, it would be a matter of scheduling the vote in both chambers and nothing more than that,” he said.

Solmonese … said [he] expected a House floor vote on the legislation later this month or in May, but the timeline was less clear in the U.S. Senate.

“Getting some signals in terms of when the House is moving,” Solmonese said, “will help inform what’s going to happen in the Senate.”

tedkennedywikipediaimageThe legislation will be the first major test of how willing the Democratically controlled Congress is to take up LGBT rights-focused discrimination. Previously, Kennedy tried introducing a similar measure by attaching it to a defense spending bill to no avail. As optimistic as many Washington insiders are, there are several factors at work which could derail the bill:

Gay-focused LGBT legislation has no cover

LGBT issues have typically been woven into other bills to provide a level of protection against Republicans seeking to vote the issue down. The straight-up-the-middle approach is a relatively new one for LGBT legislation and when it’s been attempted in the past, it usually fails. The flip side of this is that by having a ‘pure bill’, you’ll get elected officials putting themselves on the record as either for or against gay rights. Legislators may think twice about voting against the hate crimes bill now that the gay community has shown itself capable of organizing loud, vocal and often politically damaging protests.

The power of the grassroots gay community to enable more mainstream gay efforts is sort of ironic, considering the bad blood between the two factions of the gay political movement, but in practice, they can have quite a one-two punch.

Don’t assume all Democrats will vote for a gay rights bill

A Democrat in Texas is a far cry from a Democrat in New York and without cover, Democrats representing more conservative districts will need some cajoling to vote for a bill their opponent could use against them in the next election. The solution here isn’t to hide the bill, but rather for Congressional leaders and LGBT activists to help educate district and state voters about the bill and frame the debate before the right has an opportunity to do so.

HRC is doing this in a way through their website– it’s easy for local constituents to write their representative urging they support the bill, but as it winds its way through Congress, LGBT must be willing to do more. Targeted television ads as well as grassroots canvassing in suspect districts– as well as moderate Republican strongholds– could be critical come roll call time.

Republicans (even gay Republicans!) oppose the bill

Yes, Virginia, there are still Republicans in D.C. and they’re pretty angry and bitter at the moment. The more ostracized G.O.P. voters feel from the political process, the more likely they are to embrace conservative values. Suffice it to say, currently, the social conservatives dominate the conversation. Already, Republican Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert is speaking out on the House floor against the bill, saying:

“Many people do not understand the Christian heart because they just don’t like people that disagree with them. Whereas the true Christian heart can disagree with people and love them, love them deeply, and be willing to give their lives for them… We are not going to protect religious speech because you can go after a minister who says relations outside of a marriage of a man and a woman [are] wrong. Someone goes out after hearing that, shoots somebody, and then [argues] ‘The preacher told me it was wrong. That’s what induced me to do that — the sermons, the Bible teachings, what not.’”

Even members of the newly formed GOProud have spoken out against the bill, considering “all crimes to be hate crimes.” It’s an old saw, but expect it to be repeated. The GOP may have moderated its stance from outright hatred to a sort of queasy compassionate dislike of the gay community, but many still believe that legislative gay bashing is a political winner back at home. With little to lose, the threat of a filibuster can’t be ignored.

Do you think federal hate crimes legislation can get passed all on its own in Congress? How much of a litmus test is it for future legislation? Should Obama use some if his political clout to speak out in the bill’s favor? How much do you want to bet he will?