Are hate crimes legislation and protections really necessary, or are they just another tiresome demand born of the homosexual agenda (whatever that is!)? Is torturing and beating someone, possibly to death, simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender more significant than the same crime committed in a personal conflict, family feud or a burglary gone wrong?

We believe it is, because intent as a motivating factor in behavior matters, and the rehabilitation (oops punishment) should fit the crime. While we find it ironic that there has to be a debate about protecting a group of citizens, it's even more ironic that there are those who dismiss attacks upon individuals based upon gender identity or relational commitments as just another crime.

Hate crimes, or those crimes committed against a certain group or individual because of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, philosophy or sexual or gender identity are real and on the increase.

The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that more than 24 people are victimized by a hate crime every day in America and that the real figure is most likely much higher because so many incidents are unreported.

Now, maybe the facts that one in six reported violent crimes is motivated by the victim's sexual orientation, that entire groups of people are being terrorized simply because of who they are and that, based on our population, roughly 24 folks beaten and killed on a daily basis, don't startle you. But they startle us. We contend there should be no violent hate crimes in a nation rumored to have been founded upon the principles of justice and tolerance for all. But since there are such crimes, society must address them.

The term "hate crime" didn't enter our national vocabulary until the 1980s when "skinheads" and other similar groups committed a series of bias-based crimes, such as hangings, vandalism and cross burnings.

Of course, tactics of intimidation and murder have been used in the United States for some time. And it was a result of such acts committed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s that the FBI began investigating crimes motivated by hate, which eventually led to the enactment of some legal protections for victims based upon race and religion.

We believe it is time to extend these same protections to the LGBT community. One must only read the newspaper or watch the news to know that crime against the LGBT population is on the increase. Almost daily we hear of beatings and murders of gays and transgender individuals by those who admit to homophobia with statements such as, "I thought he was a woman," or, "I thought he was coming on to me."

And while the crimes against male victims receive the most publicity, there have been many, many lesbians and lesbian couples harassed, beaten and murdered as well.

Extending hate crimes protection to include sexual and gender identity has been endorsed by over 210 law enforcement, religious, civic and civil rights organizations. And according to latest polls, 73 percent of Americans approve this legislation. Given all of this support, why the discussion? Why do only 44 states have hate crimes protection instead of all 50, and of those 44, why have only 24 included sexual orientation in their hate crime laws

The answer to these questions is of course not a simple one, although contempt for homosexuality probably encompasses a myriad of excuses and alibis. History tells the story of various groups being targeted over the centuries for a variety of political, religious and economic reasons. And while we Americans like to tout ourselves as having evolved beyond the cultural and personal discriminations held by our ancestors, current world conflicts would indicate that we have not improved all that much and still have a long way to go in improving the quality of life for everyone on this planet.

But let us begin in Indiana, where the KKK's presence is still in evidence and a couple gay bashings have recently occurred. Indiana has no protection against hate crimes of any sort, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Indiana Civil Rights Commission (ICRC) does have a committee to track hate crime in the state. "ICRC Hate Crimes Task Force's is to educate the public regarding the nature and extent of hate crimes and bias incidents that have occurred in the State of Indiana," its Web page says. "This is achieved by establishing and maintaining a Statewide Reporting Network and by conducting community outreach programs."

As well-intentioned as these folks no doubt are, a tracking-and-reporting committee is no substitute for legal recognition and justice. Nor do educational programs turn the heads of those filled with hatred and those convinced that theology justifies their actions.

On a national level, while we are "saving the world" with ill-disguised military conflicts as an excuse to usurp all of the earth's natural resources, we really should take some time to focus on our reputed values of acceptance all inclusiveness and evaluate just how far we have come or how far we have to go in truly being a 'united' America.

Passing federal hate crimes legislation is just one step we can take to improve the lives of one group of people, but it's a big step in the right direction, and our national image could certainly use a face lift. It's the right thing to do.

Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at and .