JEFFERSON CITY - The Senate moved one step closer Tuesday to toughening the punishment for hate crimes against gays and the disabled.
The Senate gave first-round, voice-vote approval to a bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Clay, D-St.Louis, that would extend ethnic intimidation laws to cover acts based on sexual orientation, gender and disability. Clay's plan would lengthen sentences for criminals in these cases.
"The message that I would like to send is that these classes also need to be protected," he said.
Clay said the recent hate crimes against a gay student in Wyoming and a black man in Texas show just how much his bill is needed. With the Senate's vote on the bill looming in the next few days, Clay said he hopes he can muster the 18 votes that will be necessary for final Senate passage.
He said he's unsure how the vote will turn out, but that he was pleased with the support he received Tuesday -- especially that from the five female senators.
One of those women is Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, who said she agrees that hate crimes are a problem. But, Steelman said she's undecided as to whether everyone doesn't already receive equal protection under the law.
"I'm just not sure we don't have that already," she said.
Senate GOP Leader Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles, said the whole issue is pretty clear to him.
"I don't know why we need to have separate crimes against separate groups," he said. "I just think it's so simple."
Ehlmann offered an amendment to Clay's bill that would have required everyone to be treated equally under the law. He said the judge should be responsible for looking at the motivation of individual cases.
"You simply have to exercise good judgment during the sentencing phase," he said.
Ehlmann's amendment was rejected by the Senate.
Clay's bill is an extension of the Ethnic Intimidation Act, which protects racial and ethnic minorities. While Ehlmann said he agrees that gays should be treated fairly and equally under the law, he said their situation isn't as dramatic historically as that of blacks.
"Homosexuals are not the same as racial minorities because of events that happened in our history," he said.