Last week’s attack on a gay couple in Center City Philadelphia followed a barrage of homophobic slurs.
While the attack could be prosecuted as a federal hate crime, it won’t be pursued in that way at the local level.
That’s because, said state Rep. Brendan Boyle, in Pennsylvania attacking people because they’re gay is not a “hate crime.” He said the “brutal” attack illustrates why the law needs to change.
“I immediately thought of this bill that I’ve been trying to get passed for the last several years now to include sexual orientation in our hate crimes law,” Boyle said.
Right now in Pennsylvania, an offender can be charged with a hate crime in the assault of someone targeted because of their race, religion or ethnicity. Boyle’s legislation, which has bipartisan support, would extend those protections to those targeted for being gay.
Prosecutors could use the tool, he said, to extract harsher punishments for attackers.
“It would be an add-on sentence and an extra tool to help our law enforcement community say that we’re going to take seriously any targeting of members of a group — not just that you’re attacking the individual that was physically attacked — but you really are attempting to create a hostile environment for a whole entire group of people,” he said.
The city’s hands are tied, said Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
“In a case where you have two victims who were beaten on the street for no reason, obviously this office would like to charge them with the most severe penalties that we can,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are not able to include hate crime in those charges when people are arrested for this crime because of the language of the law.”
A part-time coach at Archbishop Wood High School, “allegedly involved” in the beating, has resigned, said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput. The prelate issued a statement Thursday decrying the attack.
“A key part of a Catholic education is forming students to respect the dignity of every human person whether we agree with them or not,” Chaput said. “What students do with that formation when they enter the adult world determines their own maturity and dignity, or their lack of it.”
Chaput said violence against anyone, “simply because of who they are, is inexcusable and alien to what it means to be a Christian.”
Pennsylvania alone in NE without LGBT protections
Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that doesn’t include sexual orientation in its hate crimes law.
Boyle said his legislation, which he first introduced in 2009, has bipartisan support.
Ted Martin, who leads the advocacy organization “Equality Pennsylvania,” said it’s not surprising that the LGBT community remains unprotected from hate crimes in Pennsylvania. He pointed out that in the Keystone State it is still legal for a person to be fired or evicted, for being gay.
“It’s terrible that a tragedy like this has to bring it forward once again as a reminder, but in this instance I think it’s one more statement that we really have to address this type of awful ignorance,” Martin said.
Philadelphia City Councilman Jim Kenney sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger asking the Department of Justice to investigate and bring federal charges against the perpetrators in the Sept. 11 attack (see the letter below).
“This violent and vicious attack on two human beings because they are gay is clearly a hate crime. It’s a crime of violent bias that calls for the full weight of federal prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice,” Kenney said.
In a statement Kenney said, “no citizen should fear for their lives when walking on a public street in any city in America. This is not Uganda. This is not Russia. We will not stand for this in our City.”
Struck down in the courts
Pennsylvania used to include protections for gay and lesbian people who were the targets of crimes. But Martin said that law was overturned.
“At one time, our legislature, that I believe at that time was Republican-controlled, saw fit to pass a law. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Schweiker at the time, also a Republican, and I think it was meant as a way to make sure that people were protected,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned that legislation in 2008 based not on the law’s merits but on the method legislators used to pass it.
Rep. Brendan Boyle said changing the law is one positive thing that could come out of the brutal attack.