WASHINGTON -- Democrats urged Congress yesterday to approve new protections for gays and lesbians by expanding federal laws that provide harsher penalties for crimes motivated by race, religion or national origin.
Advocates of gay rights and other supporters of expanding the hate crimes legislation to cover sexual orientation, disability or gender were outraged to discover last week that Republicans had deleted the provision from a spending bill funding the Commerce, Justice and State departments.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, sponsor of the hate-crimes proposal, said at a news conference that crimes triggered by prejudice "attack the human spirit."
"They send a poisonous message that the majority in society can assault the minority," Kennedy said. "We must act now to give federal law enforcement the tools it needs to combat these senseless and violent acts."
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, also speaking at the news conference, said violent crimes of prejudice are growing at a time when crime rates in general are falling.
The hate-crimes legislation gained traction in the aftermath of the beating death in October last year of a gay student in Wyoming and the dragging death in June last year of a black man.
Republicans who oppose expanding the definition of hate crimes say it would create separate classes of victims. "A crime is a crime," House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said.
Not all Republicans oppose the move to broaden the law. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is a co-sponsor of the hate-crimes bill.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, said he was outraged that Republican leaders dropped the hate-crimes provision.
"Justice has been delayed and denied for too long," Gephardt said. "This is a matter of simple decency and what's right and it should transcend partisanship."