Advocates for the disabled are just beginning to realize that an effort to take gays out of Pennsylvania's hate crimes statute affects those with mental or physical challenges, too.
Pennsylvania's "ethnic intimidation" statute has long provided increased penalties for crimes committed "with malicious intention" toward the victim's race, color, religion or national origin. In 2002 the legislature added ancestry, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, and gender or gender identity to the statute.
Then, in October, bullhorn-wielding fundamentalist Christian Michael Marcavage and four others were arrested for disrupting a Philadelphia gay pride celebration. Ethnic intimidation was added to a host of other charges. All charges were dismissed Feb. 18, but not before state legislators jumped into the fray.
A much-publicized bill introduced by Rep. Tom Yewcic, a Johnstown Democrat, would take crimes driven by malice against a person's sexual orientation out of the ethnic intimidation law. "Freedom of speech, that's the bottom line in all of this," he told the Post-Gazette.
Little-mentioned in media coverage is the fact that Yewcic's bill would also remove crimes motivated by a person's ancestry, disability or gender from the statute, as added to the bill in 2002. Yewcic did not return calls from City Paper. Nor did Cranberry Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the only one of the bill's 20 cosponsors from the Pittsburgh area. Yewcic told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he considered those "subjective" categories.
Disabilities advocates are only now becoming aware of the bill's implications, says John Tague, chairman of the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities. Tague says harsher penalties for hate crimes against the disabled are an important deterrent. "People with disabilities, especially mental health disabilities, are sexually victimized all the time," says Tague. "As a society, we have to protect people who are at most risk of being targeted just because they're different."
It's unclear how often the ethnic intimidation charge is used locally. District Attorney Stephen Zappala doesn't keep statistics on its use, says spokesman Mike Manko. He noted that the statute was used against Richard Baumhammers, whose 2000 shooting spree was racially motivated.
Tague says he's getting on the phone with disabilities advocates and legislators to lobby against the bill. He says the motivation of its sponsors escapes him. "They try to repeal legislation that protects people who are beat up because they're disabled or they're gay," he says. "There's really a radical element in our country."