RICHMOND – Attorney General Mark Herring, backed by Democratic legislators and interfaith leaders, said Friday he will seek to broaden the state’s definition of “hate crime” to cover gender identity, sexual orientation and disability.
“Too many Virginians and folks all around the country have been targeted by a criminal simply because of who they are,” Herring said at a press conference.
State law defines a hate crime as “any illegal act directed against any persons or their property because of those persons’ race, religion, or national origin.”
Del. Richard Sullivan, D-Arlington, is sponsoring a bill (HB 1702) to add sexual orientation and gender identification to that definition. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, plans to offer a similar measure in the Senate.
The expanded state definition would better match the federal definition of a hate crime, which includes race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and gender identity.
LBGT advocates praised the efforts to broaden Virginia’s hate crimes law.
“Hate crimes against gay and transgender individuals are a pervasive issue and make people fear to live in their own communities,” said James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia.
“Expanding hate crime laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity sends a message that violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people isn’t OK. Anti-gay hate crimes are the third most frequent kind of hate crimes in America, and there is, however, overwhelming public support for inclusive hate crimes laws.”
Herring also will seek legislation enabling his office to use the commonwealth’s network of multi-jurisdictional grand juries to investigate suspected hate crimes and take legal action against perpetrators. The network reaches about 100 localities and will give prosecutors more tools and resources for pursuing hate crimes.
Favola and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Richmond, plan to sponsor that legislation.
At the news conference, Herring and other speakers said they are wary about President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to enforcing hate crime laws.
“For decades, the U.S Department of Justice and its civil rights division has been one of the most important forces for protecting Americans and Virginians from hate and discrimination,” Herring said. “It is my sincere hope that the new administration and attorney general will continue that bipartisan tradition, but to be honest, I am concerned.”
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, echoed that concern. He said it is now up to the states to step up and protect minority communities.
“Hate crimes are not attacks against individuals,” Moline said. “They are attacks on entire communities, meant to strike fear and intimidation in the hearts of all members of a given group. Interfaith Alliance applauds Attorney General Herring’s efforts to protect Virginians and set a national standard for hate crime prevention.”
Other groups supporting the initiative include the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Anti-Defamation League and the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the state’s largest mosque/Muslim community.
Nationwide, there were 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015, according to the latest FBI statistics. More than half were motivated by a bias based on race, ethnicity or ancestry, about one-fifth by religious bias and almost one-fifth by sexual orientation bias.
The FBI said 158 hate crime incidents were reported in Virginia in 2015. Two-thirds were motivated by a bias based on race, ethnicity or ancestry, 15 percent by religious bias and 15 percent by sexual orientation bias.
Hate crimes in Virginia increased 21 percent from 2014 to 2015, Herring said. He said he wants to be ready if the federal government retreats from pursuing hate crimes.
“If the new administration chooses to step back from its responsibilities from hate crimes even an inch, Virginians’ rights will still be protected in the communities they call home,” Herring said.
David Chapman, interim executive minister of the Baptist General Convention of Virginia, said he regrets that “measures like this are necessary” in 2017. “I firmly believe you can’t legislate morality, that it takes good people standing together to oppose evil and block its advancements.”