Legislation expanding Alabama's hate crimes law to include a victim's sexual orientation narrowly won approval from a state Senate committee Wednesday after a lively discussion about whether gays should be covered.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-3 for the bill by state Senator Hank Sanders, a Democrat. The bill now goes to the Senate, where similar legislation has died in past years. An identical bill by Representative Alvin Holmes, also a Democrat, won approval from the House Judiciary Committee last month and is awaiting a vote in the House.
Sanders said adding sexual orientation to Alabama's hate crimes law would serve as a deterrent to attacks on gays. But Senator Bradley Byrne, a Republican, said similar crimes should be treated equally, regardless of who the victim is.
"To me, an assault is an assault is an assault," he said.
In addition to passing the hate crimes bill, the committee voted 5-3 for legislation that would stop a judge from overriding a jury's recommendation of life in prison without parole in capital murder cases. Currently, a judge can override the jury and impose a death sentence.
Legislation by Sanders that would have imposed a three-year moratorium on executions in Alabama stalled on a 4-4 vote. It can come up later for consideration.
The hate crimes legislation sparked the most lively debate in the committee.
The Legislature enacted a hate crimes law in 1994 that mandates longer minimum sentences for crimes committed because of the victim's race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity or physical or mental disability. Sexual orientation was not included in the original legislation, but bills have been introduced in the Legislature every year since 1999 to try to add it.
Senator Roger Bedford, a Democrat, said he supports having extra punishment for a crime committed because of something the victim can't change, such as their race or a physical or mental defect, but he said sexual orientation should not be included.
"Your sexual orientation is a choice, and that can be changed," he said.
"I'm not sure it's just a choice by the person," Senator Vivian Davis Figures, a Democrat, told Bedford.
Bedford said he also had a problem with raising the level of punishment for something considered "not proper conduct" by some.
Voting for the bill were Senators Ted Little,Quinton Ross, Rodger Smitherman, Sanders and Figures, all Democrats.
Voting against it were Senators Wendell Mitchell and Bedford, both Democrats, and Byrne, a Republican.