WASHINGTON (CNN) – Attorney General Eric Holder stepped up his call for the passage of federal hate crimes legislation Thursday, arguing that the federal government needs to take a stronger stand against criminal activity fueled by bias and bigotry.
He also sought to assure opponents that such a bill would not allow Christian clergy to be prosecuted for outspoken opposition to homosexuality.
Holder made his remarks during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is currently considering the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
The bill would allow the Justice Department to provide assistance to state and local authorities in the prosecution of hate crimes, while also expanding federal protection against hate crimes to cover disability, gender, and sexual orientation.
"Hate crimes victimize not only individuals but entire communities," Holder said.
"Perpetrators of hate crimes seek to deny the humanity that we all share, regardless of the color of our skin, the God to whom we pray, or the person who we choose to love. ... The time is now to provide justice to victims of bias-motivated violence and to re-double our efforts to protect our communities from violence based on bigotry and prejudice."
The attorney general argued that "recent numbers ... suggest that hate crimes against certain groups are on the rise, such as individuals of Hispanic national origin."
Specifically, he noted, more than 77,000 hate crime incidents were reported by the FBI between 1998 and 2007, or "nearly one hate crime for every hour of every day over the span of a decade."
In light of such statistics, he said, it was one of his "highest personal priorities ... is to do everything I can to ensure this critical legislation finally becomes law."
Republicans on the Judiciary Committee disputed Holder's assertion that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of hate crimes. They also questioned the need for federal involvement in the prosecution of violent acts - traditionally a function of state and local governments.
They pointed to FBI figures showing a slight decline from 7,755 hate crimes reported in 1998 to 7,624 in 2007, the most recently compiled statistics.
It is "important to know (if) we have a problem of significant numbers of (hate crime) cases ... not being prosecuted in state and local governments," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the committee.
"Murders occur all over America every day. Robberies, assaults, rapes, burglaries occur every day, and those are handled by our state and local jurisdictions. ... They do a pretty good job."
When pressed, Holder acknowledged he had no hard evidence of trends showing the problem getting worse, nor that states are not prosecuting cases based on their own state hate crimes statutes.
The attorney general insisted, however, that the issue should be viewed more broadly.
"It seems to me this is a question of conscience," Holder argued. He emphasized that the bill is designed to give special protections to groups that historically have been victims solely based on who they are.
Holder added that while state and local governments generally do a good job prosecuting violent crimes, there is nevertheless a need for the federal government to serve as a "backstop" on occasion, particularly if localities lack the resources for an effective investigation or prosecution.
"There are instances where the (federal) government needs to come in," he said.
He also asserted that any federal hate crimes law would be used only to prosecute violent acts based on bias, as opposed to the prosecution of speech based on controversial racial or religious beliefs.
"It is the person who commits the actual act of violence, who would be subject to this legislation, not the person who is simply expressing an opinion," Holder said.
Several religious groups have expressed concern that a hate crimes law could be used to criminalize conservative speech relating to subjects such as abortion or homosexuality.
The attorney general has been a vocal proponent of federal hate-crimes legislation since his tenure in the Clinton Justice Department. Last week, in a speech on civil rights, he cited three recent fatal shootings in calling for stricter hate crimes laws.
"The violence in Washington, Little Rock and Wichita reminds us of the potential threat posed by violent extremists and the tragedy that ensues when reasoned discourse is replaced by armed confrontation," he said.
Holder was referring to the shooting death of a security guard at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, allegedly by a self-avowed white supremacist; the shooting of two U.S. soldiers in Little Rock, Arkansas, allegedly by a man prosecutors say was targeting the U.S. military for what it had done to Muslims; and the murder of a doctor who ran a women's clinic in Wichita, Kansas, allegedly by an abortion opponent.
–CNN's Terry Frieden contributed to this report
"... the federal government needs to take a stronger stand against criminal activity fueled by bias and bigotry."
Hey, easy! That's a GOP constituency! Leave the Tiller Killer alone and keep your mits off the Holocaust shooter!
(The sarcasm not to be misunderstood.)
Yeesh! Just tell 'em it's all about getting "liberals" for saying mean things about Palin's kids and see how fast they get behind it!
whites are the biggest haters among AA's, i think they ought to brought down too their knees on this issue. the repigs in congress is only making the problem worse. bigotry is all in what's taking place today.
What Can U Say? June 25th, 2009 3:53 pm ET
Why shouldn't Christian Clergy be prosecuted?
I'm afraid they will be, as soon as they refuse to perform a same sex marriage.
What a waste of time and money. A crime is a crime, and a violation of a law should result in the same penalty for all violators regardless of motive.
I'm surprised the GOP is so willing to come out in support of hate groups. You'd think they would be trying to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America rather than marginalizing themselves further. I've thought the recent hysteria about the end of the GOP was premature, but I'm beginning to think it may be imminent.
Well, you know the GOP doesn't want a stronger hate crimes bill. They would all be locked up.
to kevin in ohio an others:crime is a crime? hate involve in every crime? where do you people come up with these things.if i pay you to committ a crime against someone you dont even know?is hate involve on your path??
Sounds good to me, what is the problem? Oh, of course, the radical racist party also know as the gop or the republican party or better know as dumb & dumber.
@Phat Elvis June 25th, 2009 3:48 pm ET
well of course the GOP is not pursuaded– they are the party of hate!!!
Hmmm, Phat Elvis…that's a pretty hateful statement in and of itself. Typical left-wing hypocrisy.
Kevin, What he posted is not hateful, it is true, The GOP pushes hate between races and political parties.
@ Ernie Banks
Please describe to me how a bill designed to prosecute violent physical acts in the name of bias or bigotry is an infringement on free speech.
This bill doesn't prevent you from saying hateful things, it makes the penalties for physical violence in the name of hate more stringent.
BTW, I don't like the bill either, because I believe it to be redundant and absurd since I believe all crimes to be based somewhat in hate.
That's because the GOP has to have someone to hate and fear. Remember the song from South Pacific – the musical, that should be played at every Republican convention and maybe it is. I've never wasted time watching them.
The reason why hate crime is a separate category is because the penalties should be different. It is not just murder, it is based on race, gender or sexual orientation. According to some of the arguments on here, all crimes should be placed in the same category. So, does that mean that the 9/11 attackers should be treated as murderers instead of terrorists? Remember, it's all the same to you.
Marcus, if you are religious, which is extremely doubtful, one day you will have to answer before god for your liberal way of living your life. All of your lying, hate, and selfishness, aka liberalism, will be on display, how are you going to defend it?
God knows all and is fair, crying about how it is some republicans faught will not be an excuse for living such a liberal life.
The very definition of a hate crime is hypocrasy and hate. To classify one crime as hate and another not, based on race or ethnicity, is hate and racism itself. Have libs been so removed from doing their own thinking that they just cannot compute a thought without the lib media giving them lines to regurite like their teleprompter Messiah? Ignorance or evil, there is no other reason for being a Democrat.
Hate crimes is that hate crimes. I am a Democrat and I am against abortion, hate crimes and anything else that hurts people. Christians, Jews, Minorities and Gays have been killed because of who they are. How many whites have been taken from their homes and hung why their family watched. Give me a break.
My God states, "All men are created from Him so why should there have to be a bill to treat people right. God will handle his own business, if you disagree pray, for greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world. Stop being so racist and hateful, a hate bill will stop what is going on in this country and has gone on for hundreds of years. Everyone desires to live free of fear, even you, SN in MN. Secondly, write your governor so you can get a senator.
And we have to create a law for this. THough you can't really legislate attitude I hear.
It shows where humanity is as a whole on the spectrum of enlightenment and benevolence and wisdom.
We have so many strange and unnecessary priorities, and yet where it really matters–on a heart level (the religious included)–a whole lot of us don't have a clue–or care.
Someday. we can envision it being different.
It is the time of the Nunti Sunya.
The GOP supports and thrives on hate, anger, unrest and hypocrasy.
Of course, they will not support anything related to hate crimes as that is the result of their propaganda.
For claiming to be so righteous, how can they as supposedly family oriented, bible conscious Christians be so condemming and narrow minded?
"Holder pushes hate crimes law;"..........because some people are more precious than others.
Dumbocrats = The Party Of No(common sense).
Doug..... lol, like YOU'RE religious!
I've seen the hate you spew. A real Republican is what you are.
In other words, a HYPOCRITE.
It's funny that the hate groups - er, I mean the GOP and particular religious groups - are so opposed to this idea. How can they operate without their platform of fear and hate?
Do NOT think that the "Hate Speech" laws – if passed – will fail to be used against honest people with legitimate reasons for disagreement. It may start out innocuously enough, but will end in tyrany.
This makes perfect sense. Those that commit hate crimes should be severely punished, I say by death. Obviously if you hate so deeply that you will do violence you should not eb allowed in society, and society should not have to pay to house you. I am all for it.
GOOD ... There is not much black on white crime now it is terrifying,,, rapes , robbery , vandalism , muggings, these are all hate crimes...
@Brian0901 June 25th, 2009 4:21 pm ET
Kevin, What he posted is not hateful, it is true, The GOP pushes hate between races and political parties
So Brian, I believe hmosexuality and abortion are gross sins. Where is my hate mail coming from, the left or the right? Hatred exists in all parties! To answer my question Brian, the hate towards my beliefs will come from the left! I am sure you know that!
If you are a church going, bible carrying, gun toting, heterosexual individual, THIS government considers you and EXTREMEST.
So, all we GOOD people will be on Holder's hatelist to be prosecuted.