PA’s hate-crime law still leaves many groups out

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In 2001, Michael Auker was left for dead in his trailer home in Middleburg, Pa., about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, according to news reports. Auker had been drinking beer with two male neighbors, who reportedly thought he made sexual advances toward them.

The beating left Auker, who survived, in a coma for months. The neighbors were given prison sentences.

Following the Auker case, changes were called for in the state’s hate-crime law, the Ethnic Intimidation Act of 1982. So, in 2002, actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, disability and ancestry were added to the act.

But the constitutionality of how the language was added — as part of an agricultural bill — was challenged and the state’s Supreme Court removed the protections in 2008.

Since then, legislative attempts to add them back to the law have failed, legislative sources said.

“I think that is a disgrace,” said state representative Brendan Boyle, D-Montgomery/Philadelphia.

“Sexual orientation should be a part of our hate-crime law, for [people] bullied, beaten up or targeted simply for being gay,” he said.

Boyle is the primary sponsor of House Bill 177, a bill aimed at re-expanding the hate-crime law. It has been stalled in the House Judiciary Committee since January.

A similar bill, Senate Bill 42, has stood still in the Senate Judiciary. The primary sponsor is Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny/Armstrong/Westmoreland.

Neither Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks/Montgomery, chairman of the Senate committee, nor Ron Marsico, R-Dauphin County, chairman of the House committee, responded to calls for comment.

Spokespeople for both chairmen said no action was scheduled on the bills.
ACLU concerns

The American Family Association of Pennsylvania, a chapter of a national fundamentalist Christian nonprofit, is an opponent of expanding the state’s hate-crime law.

“These laws are being lobbied by homosexual activists,” said Diane Gramley, the organization’s president. “We will have a situation where Christians will be arrested, simply for voicing their views on homosexuality.”

The American Family Association of Pennsylvania is categorized as anti-gay by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The American Civil Liberties Union, an organization that advocates for First Amendment rights, has also raised concerns about hate-crime laws.

Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said the group is opposed to designating an act as a hate crime unless there is evidence of bias at the time the act is committed.

In other words, someone who commits a crime shouldn’t be prosecuted for a hate crime just because they belong to a hate group or own hate-group literature, Walczak explained.

For Gramley, the issue is about safeguarding First Amendment rights. But it is also about the fact that race, color, religion and national origin are unchangeable, she said.

Gramley said she believes homosexuality is changeable.

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