Aside from punishing offenders — which should happen anyway under existing law and which could be enhanced without creating special categories of protection — the purpose of a hate crimes law seems entirely symbolic. While I’m not unmoved by the symbolic value of law, I’m opposed in principle to criminal laws of purely symbolic value. Opposition to purely symbolic criminal laws was a good reason, for example, to oppose sodomy laws, which were a largely symbolic (and very partial) reinforcement of traditional sexual morality. . . .

No doubt national gay-rights groups are looking for some kind of win early in the new Congress to show long-suffering donors they can be effective. Winning on hate crimes may also reassure members of Congress that they can vote for a pro-gay bill without serious repercussion. Other important issues — like a federal employment protection bill and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — are on the horizon. An “anti-crime” measure is the easiest first step to take and may actually get President Bush’s signature, leading to more progress later.

But I am concerned that passing this seemingly symbolic bill may instead give the new Congress a “pass” — freeing it to avoid the harder and far more consequential questions of employment, military service, and protecting gay families in the law. These are all issues about which Congress really can do something of practical value.

Read the whole thing. The “hate crime” approach has been a disaster in Europe, and I think it would be a mistake to emulate it here. We discuss this topic with Presidential candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) in our Glenn and Helen Show podcast that will be up later this morning.