Proponents of a state bias crime bill in the Jewish community stepped up their political pressure on New York officials this week following the brutal murder of a gay college student in Wyoming.
“It’s time for the Albany shuffle to end,” said Howard Katz, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League at a press conference last Friday. “The three leaders have each said it’s the other guy’s fault.”
Katz was referring to Gov. George Pataki, state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. He called on the Republican Pataki, who has introduced his own version of the bill, to convene a special session of the Legislature to get it passed. And although an Assembly version has been passed repeatedly for more than a decade, Katz implored Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, not to oppose the governor’s version.
“We need a bill now,” he said.
But Katz’s harshest criticism was reserved for Bruno, the upstate Republican who opposes the bill and has refused to allow a vote in the Republican-controlled Senate. Some senators object to the inclusion of homosexuals as a group to be protected by the bill, which would increase the penalties for crimes motivated by bias.
“Stop allowing bigotry to motivate how the Senate majority votes,” Katz urged Bruno. “Don’t let the conservative wing dictate what is passed.”
The press conference was timed to coincide with the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was bludgeoned and found tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Shepard may have propositioned one of the suspects at a bar earlier in the evening, authorities said, although robbery is considered the prime motive.
New York is one of 10 states in the nation without sweeping legislation to increase penalties for crimes motivated by bias, although a measure does allow for stronger prosecution of some acts of aggravated harassment.
In a statement, Bruno said that current law is sufficient to combat bias-motivated crime. The Renssalaer County lawmaker noted that had the Shepard murder taken place in New York State, the assailants would be eligible for the death penalty.
“The Senate has passed legislation which would require judges to consider at sentencing whether bias was a motive for a crime,” Bruno added. “This is a more sensible approach.”
Anti-gay crimes against gays are becoming more prevalent in the state than bias crimes against Jews. While anti-Semitic incidents rose by 16 percent in 1997, anti-gay crime rose by 81 percent, according to statistics from the Anti-Defamation League and the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. Overall, bias acts rose 7 percent to 908 incidents in 1996, the most recent year statistics were compiled by the federal Department of Justice.
Joining ADL at the press conference were representatives from the Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay rights group; the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project; the Urban League; the American Jewish Congress; the American Jewish Committee; and officials including Public Advocate Mark Green, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, Assembly member Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan) and state Sens. Catherine Abate and David Paterson, both Manhattan Democrats.
“A bias crime bill could prevent further Matthew Shepards,” said Green. “If a bill is passed, he will not have died in vain.”
The only Republican to attend the rally was Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, who was careful to avoid being photographed next to signs held by Empire State Pride Agenda members criticizing Pataki, Bruno and U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, also a Republican.
Lashing out at those who block the bias bill because they oppose homosexuality Pirro, the newly elected president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, asked: “These moralists who want to condemn the lifestyle of an individual … Where are you today when someone is killed based on who they are?”
In a statement, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Manhattan’s gay and lesbian synagogue, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, said, “While I do not believe there is a direct cause and effect from those who speak so violently against gay people, I do believe that the radical religious right’s condemnation of homosexuality has helped to create a climate where such acts can occur.”
Although Jewish defense organizations such as the ADL, AJCongress and AJCommittee support a bill that includes gays as a protected group, umbrella groups such as the Orthodox Union have reserved their support.
“We would not support a hate crimes bill whose purpose is to legitimize homosexuality rather than fight discrimination,” said Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute of Public Affairs.
David Zwiebel, director of governmental affairs of Agudath Israel of America, said his organization had no position on the bill, but was concerned that language in the bill could promote a gay civil-rights agenda rather than protect individuals from violence.
“The last time we studied a [version of the] bill, we had problems with some of the language,” he said.
Zwiebel added his concern that in the wake of the Shepard murder, those who object to homosexuality on religious grounds would be cast as provocateurs of such incidents.
“People who think homosexuality is sinful are themselves being scapegoated and held responsible for crimes and acts of violence,” said Zwiebel. “I think that itself is bigotry.”
At the press conference, Patterson, who represents Harlem, recalled that the Senate had an opportunity to pass a bias crime bill in 1988 — if provisions to include gays were removed.
“But how can you pass anti-bias legislation that has bias in it?” he asked.