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Thursday, February 27, 2003

Senate Passes Measure Banning Bias Against Gays

By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE When Jo Kenny picks up the phone at the Coalition for Equality, the person on the line often claims he or she is a victim of discrimination based on sexual orientation or a hate crime.
    Kenny, who gets calls to her Santa Fe office from across the state, tells such victims they have no rights under New Mexico law.
    That could soon change.
    Senate Bill 28, narrowly approved by the Senate on Wednesday on a 22-18 vote, would prohibit discrimination based on someone's sexual preference or gender identity. It also would allow people who think they've been discriminated against to sue. The bill is now headed to the House.
    In addition, debate over a proposal to formally designate "hate crimes" as criminal offenses is expected to begin in the Senate as early as today.
    The hate crimes bill (SB 38 and SB 249 committee substitute) would establish penalties for crimes against someone for his or her "actual or perceived race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity ... whether or not the offender's belief or perception was correct."
    The controversial issues have gone around and around in New Mexico's Capitol before, but they have fallen short in votes or been rejected outright. It might be a different story this year.
    The House earlier this week approved its own version of an anti-sexual orientation discrimination measure (HB 314).
    "This bill is about the people who have been crushed by discrimination in housing and employment and had nowhere to turn," said Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, successfully sponsoring the Senate version through that chamber on Wednesday.
    Critics, including Sen. Rod Adair, said the measure would give special protections to people "based on the way in which they have sex."
    "This is forcing a social value on the people of New Mexico that they do not embrace," said Adair, a Roswell Republican.
    Given the four-hour debate on McSorley's bill, adoption of hate crime legislation is expected to be lengthy and contentious. A call of the Senate already has been imposed for the upcoming debate, meaning the attendance of every senator is required.
    New Mexico is one of only five states in the nation without hate crimes laws, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group based in Washington D.C. Arkansas, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming are the others.
    Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have hate crimes laws that include penalties for a criminal act committed because of the victim's sexual orientation, according to the group. Six of those states also include gender identity in their laws.
    Another 18 states have hate crimes laws that do not explicitly cover sexual orientation or gender identity as elements of hate crimes, according to the group.
    Utah, for example, has a hate crimes law that ties penalties to the violation of a victim's constitutional or civil rights.
    Proponents here say a New Mexico law is needed because of ongoing discrimination.
    "We need to send a message that this type of behavior isn't going to be tolerated in 2003," said Robin Phillips, an Albuquerque security company owner who identifies herself as a transgendered female.
    Under the measure pending in the Senate, if a court or jury found "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a crime was motivated by hate, the perpetrator's sentence could be increased by up to a year. The bill also would allow a judge to impose an alternative sentence such as community service, education or treatment.
    The measure would require law-enforcement officials to track hate crimes and report them to the FBI. In addition, officers would be trained in recognizing and dealing with such crimes.
    Legislators for several years have tried to enact hate crime laws, but former Gov. Gary Johnson repeatedly vetoed such measures, saying every crime is a hate crime.
    Gov. Bill Richardson wouldn't say Wednesday whether he would sign either measure, but said he supports the intent of the bills.
    "I wouldn't tolerate hate crimes; I also want to see the non-discrimination language," he said.
    Kenny said answers to people calling her number will change if the hate crimes bill is approved.
    "I'll be able to say that there are police resources, that the support is there," she said.