The Cleveland-based regional office of the Anti-Defamation League is pursuing a statewide coalition in an effort to strengthen Ohio’s ethnic intimidation law.

Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL and director of its Civil Rights Policy Planning Center, was in Cleveland recently to help the office develop a strategy to improve the law, which deals with hate crimes. The region covers Ohio, Kentucky and western Pennsylvania.

In an interview at the Cleveland Jewish News office, Lieberman said Ohio’s ethnic intimidation law needs to be more inclusive. That is the goal of House Bill 300, which was introduced in the Ohio House last fall by state Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood.

The bill would expand Ohio’s ethnic intimidation law to include crimes committed against people because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or disabilities. The law already covers race, color, religion and national origin.

“It’s like a best practice,” said Lieberman, who does lobbying and legislative work for the ADL’s 30 regional offices. “If the idea of a hate-crime law is to enable law enforcement authorities to investigate and prosecute the full range of hate crimes, and you don’t have sexual orientation, disability or gender identity (included), then you’re leaving out protections that are important.”

Abby Botnick, a lawyer who serves on the board of the ADL regional office and is co-chair of its civil rights committee, said hate crimes are meant to send a message to certain segments of the population.

“We feel that Ohio’s hate-crimes law simply does not encompass the segments that we see suffering from these types of crimes,” said Botnick, of University Heights. “An expansion of the bill will bring us in line with many other states in the country that already have disability, gender identity and sexual orientation in their bill.”

Anita Gray, ADL regional director, said Antonio has asked for the ADL’s help in trying to establish a statewide coalition in support of House Bill 300. This week, Gray said her office hopes to send a mass email to law enforcement agencies, elected officials, synagogues, churches, community relations people and other individuals and organizations across the state.

“It’s going to be the broadest coalition that’s been put together around this issue in a long time,” Gray said. “We’re hoping it will show the representatives (in Ohio) that there’s a great deal of interest within the state from the people they represent and that they will listen and hopefully pass the enhanced legislation.”

During the past year, many transgender and homosexual individuals in Northeast Ohio have been victims of assaults and murders, Botnick said.

“Those could not be prosecuted as hate crimes as an enhanced penalty because those categories (gender identity and sexual orientation) are not included in our statute in Ohio,” she said. “The expanded law would allow those types of cases to be prosecuted as a hate crime, with an enhanced penalty.”

House Bill 300 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. In January, Botnick and lawyer Neal Shapero, a past regional ADL chair, traveled to Columbus to attend a meeting of the committee. Shapero, of Shaker Heights, is managing partner of the Cleveland-based Shapero & Roloff law firm, where Botnick is also employed.

“We did quite a bit of advocacy in that meeting for the purpose behind this bill and also for the ADL,” Botnick said. “Now is where we have to carry the ball forward.”

Botnick said she did not know when the Ohio General Assembly may vote on the issue.

“The law is a blunt instrument when you’re talking about hate violence,” Lieberman said. “It’s much better to prevent it in the first place. That’s why the work we’re doing in schools and in community centers is so important, to try to teach kids as young as 3 years old not to hate people because they’re different.”

Lieberman, an Ohio native who lives in the Washington area, has been the ADL’s Washington counsel since 1989 and has worked for the league since 1982. He is the ADL’s point person on federal response to bias-motivated crimes and has testified on hate-crime issues before Congress and many state legislative bodies.