Attorney General Eric Holder urged Congress to pass a new hate crimes law so the government could prosecute cases of violence based on sexual orientation, gender or disability.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday, he cited the recent killing of a security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The alleged assailant is a white supremacist.
"One has to look at the unfortunate history of our nation. There are groups that have been singled out, that have been targets of violence," the attorney general said. "We have to face and confront that reality."
Lawmakers debated the possible effect of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after a gay man killed in Wyoming in 1998. It would allow federal prosecution of violence committed because of the actual or perceived gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity of the victim.
For more than a decade, Democrats have sought to update the hate crimes law, which already makes it a federal crime to attack someone because of their race, creed or color.
Expansion of federal power?
Republicans questioned whether the change would expand federal power unnecessarily into cases already being prosecuted by state and local officials. They also asked why certain victims of violence should be singled out for particular types of protection.
"That's part of the problem. Some are protected groups and get special protection under this law," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee's top Republican. "You argued your case. I've listened to it and I'm not persuaded."
According to FBI data, the number of hate crimes per year is relatively unchanged in the past 10 years. In 1998, the FBI reported 7,755 hate crime incidents and 7,624 in 2007.
About half of all hate crimes are motivated by racial bias. The other two most frequent hate crimes are those motivated by religion or sexual orientation.
Crimes against Hispanics
Holder said the statistics show hate crimes against Hispanics have increased four years in a row.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said some of the debate in her state over immigration "has been part of hate and people have been beaten up because they happen to be Hispanic, they happen to be on a street corner where somebody doesn't want them."
Sessions, who opposes the bill, and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who supports it, asked whether the law could be used to prosecute a church leader who speaks out against homosexuality, if a member of that congregation then assaults a gay person.
"This is a bill to hold people accountable for conduct, not for speech," Holder insisted.
The Traditional Values Coalition is urging lawmakers to vote against the bill, claiming it will jeopardize religious freedoms and "elevate" homosexuality within federal law.