Gay couples marry in Iowa, hate crimes protection advances in Congress

Same-sex couples began applying for marriage licenses across Iowa April 27, after the state’s Supreme Court ruled to legalize gay marriage earlier this month.

By the end of the first day the ruling took effect, more than 200 couples had applied and paid $35 for marriage licenses. Some came from neighboring states like Illinois and Nebraska, officials said.

The Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision on April 3 made the state the third to allow same-sex marriage, joining Massachusetts and Connecticut. Vermont passed a similar law that is expected to take effect in September. For six months last year, California’s high court allowed same-sex couples to marry before anti-gay groups steered voters into banning it in a state referendum last November.

In its decision, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld an August 2007 ruling by a Polk County District Court judge who found that a state law limiting marriage to a man and a woman violates the constitutional right of equal protection.

Meanwhile, a congressional committee voted April 23 to extend hate crimes protections to gay and transgendered individuals.

The House Judiciary Committee forwarded the legislation to the full House in a 15-12 vote. It adds “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the current categories — including race, religion and national origin — protected under the definition of hate crimes. The committee defeated several Republican efforts to weaken the measure.

The bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, HR 1913, appears to have a better chance of enactment this time, after having been blocked in previous years. The House and Senate both passed similar legislation in 2007. Under threat of a veto from President Bush, the two chambers failed to agree on a final version.

If the bill gains approval in this Congress, President Obama is expected to sign it into law.

The bill is also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, named after a gay college student who was brutally murdered in 1998 near Laramie, Wyo.

“After 10 years, and tens of thousands more victims, this critical legislation combating hate violence is long overdue,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign told Townhall.com. His group works to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, told Townhall.com.

“We must not miss this opportunity to provide local police and sheriffs’ departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence,” he said.

The legislation would authorize the U.S. attorney general to help state and local officials in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.

The bill would define a hate crime as one “motivated by prejudice based on the actual perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of the victim or is a violation of the State, local, or Tribal hate crime laws.”

The penalty for a hate crime could be as much as 10 years in prison or, in some cases, up to a life sentence.

People For the American Way President Michael Keegan called the committee’s vote “a very positive step towards passing this bill into law. I’m extremely optimistic that this year we’ll finally be able to enact hate crimes legislation that includes protections against violence based on disability status, sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity.”

He continued, “ Political groups with an anti-gay agenda are working hard to stop the legislation, and we’ve already seen the usual barrage of baseless attacks from the right wing. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act protects free speech, and it protects religious liberty. It’s time to turn away from dishonest scare tactics and pass this legislation on to the Senate and to the President’s desk.”

plozano @ pww.org