Each election year, we ask legislative candidates if they support expanding the state's hate crimes law to include sexual orientation. The responses are mostly predictable.Democrats running for four seats in the House of Delegates 35th District, for example, all said yes, with no hesitation, in a meeting with Gazette editors this week. Among Republicans running for the same seats, the answers were less clear, but leaned toward no.Republican Ann Calvert, a former delegate, first said she would have no problem with extending the law, but then echoed many responses we've heard over the years: If we are all Americans protected by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, why should any group get special consideration?There lies the broad misunderstanding of West Virginia's law against hate crimes. The law doesn't apply to some West Virginians and not others. It applies to everyone. It doesn't make it a crime to beat up a black person and not a white person. It was already a crime to beat up anyone. This law, passed in 1987, made it a crime to target a person for violence because of their race, whatever their race. The same goes for color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation or sex.
Those of us who write and talk about this law share the responsibility for its being misunderstood. As a practical matter, given our demographics, history and experience, our examples of the law in action are more likely to involve African-American victims and white perpetrators instead of the other way around.But indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court case in which such laws were upheld in 1993 involved a young white guy who was severely beaten by several black youths who targeted him because he was white.The same goes for sexual orientation. Experience teaches us to expect more violence aimed at homosexuals than heterosexuals. So, when we talk or write about the possibility of adding sexual orientation to the hate crimes law, we often use a kind of verbal shorthand, such as "extending protection to gays."Neither candidates nor voters should let themselves be confused, however. If West Virginia added sexual orientation to its hate crimes law, it would apply to everyone.
Certainly some candidates and voters reject the idea of adding sexual orientation to the law because they are still not convinced that each of us has as much choice in our sexual orientation as we have in our eye color. Still other candidates crawfish around the question because they don't want be perceived as endorsing immorality in the eyes of some voters. That is another issue.Delegates who sincerely deplore violence against homosexuals or others ought to favor this tool for prosecutors. It applies only in certain, technical circumstances. It is not used particularly often.But the value of the law is greater than its application in any specific case. West Virginia's law against hate crimes expresses the people's intention. It signals to everyone what sort of society this is, and what behaviors, however acceptable in the past, are not tolerated.In the same meeting where we raised the question of extending the hate crimes law to include sexual orientation, Republican candidate Fred Joseph chimed in with his pat response: "What about fat Arabs?" referring to his own ancestry.What about them? Does West Virginia's hate crimes law protect Fred Joseph?Yes. Depending on the circumstances, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin -- possibly even political affiliation -- might be applied in a case where a person of Arab descent was targeted for violence.Many candidates lament violence against anyone, and speak eloquently and idealistically about how America must put such discrimination in the past and have a society where all members are respected.
Conscientious candidates realize that a law against hate crimes, one that covers the real-life reasons why people are targeted, is one of the ways we get to that goal.Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.