The U.S. Senate approved a defense-spending bill Oct. 22 to which the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate-Crimes Prevention Act was attached, and President Obama signed the bill into law Oct. 28.
The amendment honors two men both slain in 1998: Shepard, a gay college student from Wyoming, beaten and left to die tied to a fence; and Byrd, a black man who was brutally murdered by three white men.
The House had approved the defense bill Oct. 8 in a 281-146 vote. The Senate approved the bill 68-29.
The hate-crimes amendment expands the 1969 federal hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and mental or physical disability; provide funding to local and state agencies to investigate hate crimes; remove the current stipulation that offenses must be committed while a victim is engaging in a federally protected activity; and provide the Justice Department greater jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
“Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country.”
Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, noted that while some opponents of the hate-crimes measure tried to popularize the notion that the law would penalize those using anti-LGBT speech, this stipulation is not within the parameters of the law.
“Hate crimes are particularly vicious and dangerous in our society because they are intended to intimidate entire classes of people and prevent them from fully participating in the democratic process,” Glassman said. “This law will not limit the use of offensive hate speech, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, hate-crimes laws can be used to address hate activity when an underlying crime has already been committed. They are an important tool in the arsenal of prosecutors and district attorneys when they see that a crime has had a significant impact on an entire community based upon an attack on any of the protected classes cited in the legislation.”
The House had passed the hate-crimes measure as a stand-alone bill in April, but the Senate attached it as an amendment to the 2010 Defense Authorization bill, which resulted in the two chambers having to convene a conference to agree upon differences in the text of the bills. The conference committee approved a final version of the defense bill, with the Shepard Act included, earlier this month.
All 10 Democratic U.S. representatives from Pennsylvania — excluding Rep. Chris Carney (10th Dist.), who did not vote — approved the defense bill, as did Republican Reps. Charles Dent (15th Dist.) and Todd Platts (19th Dist.). Republican Reps. Glenn Thompson (5th Dist.), Jim Gerlach (6th Dist.), William Shuster (9th Dist.), Joseph Pitts (16th Dist.) and Tim Murphy (18th Dist.) opposed the measure.
In the Senate, both Pennsylvania legislators, Sens. Bob Casey (D) and Arlen Specter (D), voted for the bill.
Casey said in a statement last week that he had the opportunity to meet Matthew Shepard’s mother, Judy, several years ago and the pain she felt over her son’s murder was palpable.
“She will never fully recover from the loss of her son. I think we have to consider who speaks for that mother and the families of other victims of hate crimes,” Casey said. “I am pleased that after years of obstruction, the hate-crimes provision is on its way to President Obama’s desk for signature. It will give prosecutors and law enforcement the tools they need to investigate, prevent and prosecute crimes motivated by hatred and bigotry.”
Glassman noted that while the passage of the federal hate-crimes measure is a success for the LGBT-rights movement, a state-level LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes law is also needed to bolster support.
Pennsylvania Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-38th Dist.) introduced a bill in February that would add sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, ancestry and physical and mental disability as protected classes under the state’s current hate-crimes law. Such groups had previously been included in the Pennsylvania Ethnic Intimidation Law, but were stricken following a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that found the legislative process by which these classes were included in the law was unconstitutional.
“It is disgraceful that the legislature has allowed a year-and-a-half to pass without putting this important law back into effect,” Glassman said. “While a federal hate-crimes law is an important landmark for the LGBT community nationwide, it is only able to be used when local officials request the intervention of the Department of Justice. Without statewide legislation in place, we remain largely unprotected in this vital area of the judicial system.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.