Hate crimes law 10 years overdue, critics charge

Legislation to protect victims of attack based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disabilities reached the Senate floor July 15 with a good chance of being signed into law.

Current hate crimes law applies to acts of violence motivated by prejudice against a person’s race, color, national origin, or religion. Under the new proposal hate crimes law will be expanded to include sexual orientation, disability and gender.

The measure, known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would make it easier for federal prosecutors to get involved in hate crime cases. A similar version in the House passed in April and carries solid support in the Senate.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., first introduced the bill in 1997 and for the first time since then, pro-bill Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House.

President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, supports the measure.

Attorney General Eric Holder has also urged Congress to act so the government can prosecute cases of violence based on gender and sexual orientation.

The bill is named after Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was targeted because he was gay. Shepard was brutally attacked and murdered in 1998.

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a prime sponsor, introduced the measure as a bipartisan amendment to a $680 billion bill approving defense programs.

“The hate crimes amendment would improve existing law by making it easier for federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes of racial, ethnic, or religious violence,” said Leahy in a statement. “Victims will no longer have to engage in a narrow range of activities, such as serving as a juror, to be protected under Federal law. It also focuses the attention and resources of the Federal government on the problem of crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, which is a long-overdue protection.”

Leahy continued, “In addition, the hate crimes amendment will provide assistance and resources to state, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.”

Winnie Stachelberg wrote on the Center for American Progress website that she welcomes the new bill.

“I witnessed in 1998 two shocking images that shocked the country into dealing with the horror of hate crimes violence. First, James Byrd Jr. was brutally lynched, dragged for three miles behind a car purely out of a hatred for African Americans. A few months later, Matthew Shepard was beaten and left tied to a fence to die, simply because he was gay. This week, we have the best opportunity in 11 years to send a clear message to those who would perpetrate tragedies like these.”

Stachelberg notes that over 12,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and untold numbers of transgender Americans have experienced hate crimes since 1998, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations, including vandalism, assault, rape, and murder.

“LGBT Americans have been forced for years to hear members of Congress, the White House, and even the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claim that the violence that they live with is not important,” writes Stachelberg. “We finally have clear momentum for this legislation. The House, Senate, and White House for the first time all stand in support of this bill and are eager to send it to the president’s desk for signature before the August recess. Our conservative opponents are left to try to defeat the bill with decade-old misrepresentations about religious freedom and procedural maneuvers.”

Stachelberg continues, “But now, with the opportunity to see the first pro-equality legislation become law in over a decade, it is time to pull the force of community behind the bill and see it to the president’s desk.”

Anthony Commarata from West Akron, Ohio wrote on Akron.com that now is the time to pass the hate crimes bill.

Commarata notes that a recent Gallup Poll shows that a substantial majority of the American public supports the expansion of Federal hate crime legislation, 68 percent in favor, 27 percent oppose and five percent no opinion.

“Republicans, conservatives and religious Americans are slightly less likely than others to favor the expansion, but a majority of those in each of these conservative and religious groups favors the proposed legislation,” says Commarata.

“This is the right time to pass this Hate Crimes law, with the recent passing of the 10th-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death,” he writes. “I believe it’s 10 years overdue. Don’t you?”

Former Republican presidential nominee John McCain is a vocal opponent of the amendment.