(1st Add: Includes comments from Focus on the Family and Reps. John Conyers and Lamar Smith.)
(CNSNews.com) - President Bush looks likely to veto a "hate crimes" bill under debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday if it is approved by Congress. Conservatives quickly responded by thanking the president for upholding "our nation's constitutional tradition of equal protection under the law."
"The administration favors strong criminal penalties for violent crime, including crime based on personal characteristics, such as race, color, religion or national origin," according to a statement released by the Executive Office of the President.
"However, the administration believes that H.R. 1592 is unnecessary and constitutionally questionable," the release stated. "If H.R. 1592 were presented to the president, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill." The sentence containing the veto reference was underlined in the statement.
"State and local criminal laws already provide criminal penalties for the violence addressed by the new federal crime defined in section 7 of H.R. 1592, and many of these laws carry stricter penalties (including mandatory minimums and the death penalty) than the proposed language in H.R. 1592," the statement said.
In addition, "state and local law enforcement agencies and courts have the capability to enforce those penalties and are doing so effectively."
"There has been no persuasive demonstration of any need to federalize such a potentially large range of violent crime enforcement, and doing so is inconsistent with the proper allocation of criminal enforcement responsibilities between the different levels of government," the office said.
"In addition, almost every state in the country can actively prosecute hate crimes under the state's own hate crimes law."
Matt Barber, policy director for cultural issues with Concerned Women for America, was quick to praise the statement.
"We thank President Bush for honoring our nation's constitutional tradition of equal protection under the law," said Barber in a statement.
Barber told Cybercast News Service Thursday that according to his sources in the White House, the president is inclined to follow his advisors' recommendations to veto the bill if passed.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson also welcomed the undertaking.
"We applaud the president's courage in standing up for the constitution and the principle of equal protection under the law," he said in a statement. "The American justice system should never create second-class victims and it is a first-class act of wisdom and fairness for the president to pledge to veto this unnecessary bill."
As Cybercast News Service previously reported, the House is debating the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007 (H.R. 1592), which would "provide federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes" involving "actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability."
The bill was first introduced on March 20 by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).
He told the House Thursday that "there are no First Amendment disabilities about this measure in any way. As a personal advocate of the First Amendment I can assure you that that would be the last thing that would be allowed to be in this bill."
Conyers said a vote for the bill would not be "a vote in favor of any particular sexual belief or characteristic. It's a vote, rather, to provide basic rights and protections for individuals so they are protected from assaults based on their sexual orientation."
Of reported hate crimes, Conyers told the House, 54 percent are based on race, 17 on "religious bias" and 14 percent on "sexual orientation bias."
Opposing the measure, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said the bill would result in disproportionate justice for victims of certain crimes.
"All violent crimes must be vigorously prosecuted. However this bill, no matter how well intended, undermines basic principles of our criminal justice system. Under this bill justice will no longer be equal but depend on the race, sex, sexual orientation, disability or status of the victim," he said.
"For example, criminals who kill a homosexual or a transsexual will be punished more harshly than criminals who kill a police officer, members of the military, a child, a senior citizen or any other person."
Smith also voiced concern that the measure would have a "chilling effect" on religious leaders and groups "who express their constitutionally protected beliefs."
He also argued that it was unconstitutional and would likely be struck down by the courts.
'Other classes would be without special status'
According to the Executive Office release, "H.R. 1592 prohibits willfully causing or attempting to cause bodily injury to any person based upon the victim's race, color, religion or national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
"The administration notes that the bill would leave other classes (such as the elderly, members of the military, police officers and victims of prior crimes) without similar special status," the release said. "The administration believes that all violent crimes are unacceptable, regardless of the victims, and should be punished firmly."
Also, the bill "raises constitutional concerns" because "federalization of criminal law concerning the violence prohibited by the bill would be constitutional only if done in the implementation of a power granted to the federal government, such as the power to protect federal personnel, to regulate interstate commerce or to enforce equal protection of the laws," the statement said.
Therefore, "it is not at all clear that sufficient factual or legal grounds exist to uphold this provision of H.R. 1592," the release added.
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