Last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House passed legislation that would hand out longer jail terms and higher fines for crimes against gays, lesbians and other groups because of their sexual orientation.
The state’s current Ethnic Intimidation Act gives harsher penalties for crimes motivated by hate, but such crimes are limited to those based on “malicious intent” toward a person’s race, color, religion or national origin.
The new law would add actual or perceived gender, gender identity and sexual orientation to the list, making it the most inclusive hate-crimes bill in the country.
Despite passage by both legislative houses, Gov. Mark Schweiker is stalling.
Apparently, Schweiker is undecided over whether Pennsylvania should include sexual orientation in its hate-crimes law.
The governor has 30 days from the bill’s final passage to decide whether to sign.
But the decision to sign should be easy.
Pennsylvanians want the bill.
The bill’s passage was the result of a broad-based community effort and bipartisan legislative support.
A simpler reason is that it is time.
Twenty-seven states include sexual orientation in their hate-crimes law.
For all of its symbols of freedom and democracy, Pennsylvania should be number 28.
But mainly, Schweiker should sign the bill because it is sadly necessary.
According to Pennsylvania’s 2001 Uniform Crime Reports, there were 184 incidents of hate crimes; 8 of them were based on anti-gay and anti-lesbian sentiments.
But these numbers are wrong.
Hate-crimes are underreported because reporting to the FBI by state and local jurisdictions is voluntary.
Also, fear of further threats and harassment stops many victims from coming forward.
As a result, many hate-crimes are never brought to the attention of police.
Fortunately, last year, under The Center of Lesbian & Gay Civil Rights, Pennsylvania joined The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
The NCAVP is a network of organizations that monitors incidents of violence and harassment against the gay community.
For 2001, the NCAVP found that 84 incidents of violence and 1 murder was reported to The Center.
The NCAVP also found that out of those 84 incidents only 18 were reported to the police, and only five arrests were made.
With clear legislation and harsher penalties, victims of anti-homosexual hate-crimes may begin to feel that the law is on their side.
More so, so will their attackers.
Conservatives are pressuring Schweiker to veto the bill, saying that it would erode equal-protection standards by creating special classes of victims.
But the law isn’t creating special classes of victims, racists and bigots are, and have been for a long time.
As a result, equal protection cannot be eroded when it was never granted.
In this country, we have watched equal protection slowly expand to include race and ethnicity.
It is now time for Pennsylvania to grant that same protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities.
Pennsylvania’s hate-crimes law needs to stand up for all victims.
Schweiker shouldn’t need 30 days to figure that out.
The Temple News editorial board members are:
* Jeremy Smith, Editor in Chief
* Mike Gainer, Managing Editor
* Brian White, News Editor
* Kia Gregory, Opinion Editor
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