May 22, 2009

Civil rights groups push Senate passage of hate-crimes bill

By Joi Louviere
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - “My brother was a hard-working man. He wanted to live long,” said Diego Sucuzhanay. But Jose Sucuzhanay didn’t get that chance.

In December, two men uttering Mexican and homosexual slurs attacked and beat Ecuadorian immigrant Jose Sucuzhanay in Brooklyn, N.Y., leaving him brain dead. Police have called it a hate crime.

At a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, civil rights groups spread the word about hate crimes and urged Senate passage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill would provide the Justice Department with money and resources to fight hate crimes and require stiffer sentences for those convicted.

Department of Justice statistics show 69 percent of hate crimes motivated by religion happen to Jews, 61 percent of those motivated by sexual orientation happen to homosexual males, and 68 percent of crimes motivated by race target blacks. Hispanics make up 59 percent of all ethnicities targeted. California, Michigan and New Jersey have the highest number of hate crimes.

“Stop hate crimes now!,” read one sign at the news conference. Another featured a photo of Luis Ramirez. The 25-year-old Mexican immigrant was beaten and left near death after being attacked last July.

In April the high school football players accused in Ra-mirez’s death were found not guilty of all serious counts, including third-degree murder and ethnic intimidation, although they were convicted of lesser charges.

“Luis Ramirez is an example of what cannot happen in our country,” said Sen. Robert Mendez, D-N.J. “It’s time for all of us to speak up.”

Ramirez has become a recent face of efforts to pass the act. A move to enact federal hate crime legislation began with the death of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student who was pistol-whipped and left tied to a fencepost allegedly for being gay.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau, said Shepard’s death illustrated how complex crimes could be. And although hate crimes have always existed, she said, people haven’t wanted to treat them differently.

“It’s extremely important that our nation focuses in on passing this law as quickly as possible,” Shelton said. “It could prevent the next horrendous hate crime from occurring.”

Some Christian groups say the legislation isn’t needed.

“It’s an effort to silence the gospel of Christ,” said Rev. Flip Benham, national director of Operation Rescue/ Operation Save America. “It’s a total censorship of the truth.”

Operation Save America protested the bill outside the Supreme Court on Monday. The group claims the act would give protection to homosexuality, which it regards as a sin, while taking away the freedom of speech to anyone who opposes the sin. Group pamplets refer to the bill as the “Criminalization of Christianity Act.”

Benham said he agrees with Sen. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., who called the Matthew Shepard case of 1998 a “hoax.” He says the incident was an example of a robbery turned hate crime by the homosexual community.

And Benham said he would still oppose the legislation even if homosexuals were taken out of the equation. He said there are already adequate laws to protect everyone and that no specific laws should be made for any group of people. The act is simply an attempt to silence those who don’t conform and is one of many attempts the government has made throughout history, he said.

“This thing is aimed at our speech,” said Benham. “And we’re not stupid, and we’re not going to sit back and let it happen again.”

Meanwhile, the families wait for Senate action.

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