Thursday, February 6, 2003

Hate-crime law expanded

Sexual orientation, age, disability now covered

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati City Council voted 7-2 Wednesday to expand the city's hate crimes ordinance to include sexual orientation.

The law makes it a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail, to harass, menace or deface someone's property because of his or her sexual orientation, age or disability. The law, first passed in 1995, already applied to crimes motivated by hatred based on race, color, national origin or religion.

The final vote followed a three-hour hearing Tuesday in which dozens of gay-rights supporters and advocates for the disabled - many telling personal stories of being targets of hate - pleaded with City Council to pass the ordinance. A smaller number of conservative activists urged City Council to reject it and promised to sue the city to block its implementation.

The vote was along party lines. Already on the record supporting the ordinance were John Cranley, David Crowley and David Pepper, all Democrats, and Charterite Jim Tarbell. Republicans Pat DeWine and Chris Monzel voted no.

That left it to City Council's three African-American members to deliver the last-minute votes needed for passage - even while they expressed misgivings about the ordinance.

Paul Booth said he had searched the depths of his soul and decided that a vote for the ordinance did not necessarily mean support for a homosexual lifestyle. "I don't see this as a pro-gay agenda. I see it as pro-human rights," he said.

Minette Cooper said many African-Americans in Cincinnati were still waiting for the kind of protection that the new ordinance would extend to gays and lesbians. "This law is meaningless. Laws don't mean anything. People still rob and kill every day," she said. "But unless I can do a blanket, across-the-board vote for all of humanity, I have not done my job."

And Alicia Reece, who sought an endorsement from the gay rights group Stonewall Cincinnati in 1999 by telling them she would vote for such an ordinance, waited until five hours before the vote to commit her support.

Although she spoke mostly about hate crimes targeted at ethnic minorities and the disabled, she said she was convinced by testimony from gay rights supporters Tuesday that everyone is entitled to "equal access to protection and safety," regardless of sexual orientation.

The ordinance's value is largely symbolic. Not one person has been convicted of Cincinnati's current hate crimes law, titled "ethnic intimidation," since City Council passed it in 1995.

But Cranley, the ordinance's chief sponsor, said that's no indication of its effectiveness. There's no way to know how many times prosecutors threatened to use it to get a plea bargain, or how often it may have deterred a hate crime, he said.

Opponents say the law is unnecessary because the underlying offenses - like telephone harassment, menacing and vandalism - are already against the law.

The passage of the ordinance comes 36 days after the shooting death of Gregory Beauchamp in Over-the-Rhine. Police believe he was murdered on the way to a New Year's Eve party because he was gay.

The city ordinance wouldn't apply to felonies, and Ohio's hate crimes law does not include sexual orientation. But FBI statistics show that the vast majority of hate crimes reported over the past decade are misdemeanors, supporters said.

Phil Burress, of Citizens for Community Values, accused Cranley of "exploiting this tragedy by using Mr. Beauchamp's death to push a radical sexual agenda."

He and other opponents of the law say they'll sue, citing Article XII of the city charter. The amendment, passed in 1993, prohibits City Council from passing any law giving "protected class" status based on sexual orientation.

Cranley said the charter amendment doesn't apply, and he would welcome such a lawsuit as an opportunity to once again review the constitutionality of Article XII. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld it despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down similar laws in other states.

"I say bring it on," Cranley said. "I think they have to be real careful what they ask for."


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