Despite recent progress, LGBT Americans remain unprotected under federal hate crime law.
The Matthew Shepard Act, also known as the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed in the House by a 249 to 175 vote margin in April. If made law, the bill will expand federal hate crime protection to include gender, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation, and provide funding for the investigation and prosecution of bias-motivated crimes. Currently, only race, religion and national origin are covered.
To become law, the Senate must create its own version of the bill, which President Obama has already promised to sign. The legislation first passed the House in 2007, but died in the Senate after President Bush threatened to veto.
“The fact of the matter is hate crimes happen every day, and we should not wait for another Matthew Shepard to ensure justice,” Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Florida, commented on CNN’s Political Ticker.
Last month the Oregon State House voted unanimously on a resolution which called on Congress to pass the Shepard Act as soon as possible. The overwhelming vote came in response to an attack that left two gay men brutally beaten on an Oregon beach.
Besides LGBT advocacy organizations, over 300 civil rights, civic, religious and law enforcement groups support the bill. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Washington bureau endorsed its passage in a written statement, saying hate crimes “are an attack not just on individuals but an attempt to terrorize and demoralize entire communities.”
In 2007 alone, the FBI reported that 1,460 hate crimes had been committed based
on sexual orientation. However, because there is no federal law forcing authorities to report hate crimes, these assaults often go undocumented. Currently, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Wyoming are the only states whose hate crime laws do not account for any kind
of bias, but likewise only a handful of states include sexual orientation or gender identity.
Although the call to action grows stronger, the Senate is only expected to address the issue “soon.” Conservative opponents of the legislation claim it would detract from citizens’ personal liberties.
“If this bill becomes law, it will have a chilling effect on the many law-abiding Americans’ freedom of expression,” said North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx. Foxx also asserted her belief that Matthew Shepard was not murdered because he was gay, but simply as the result of “the commitment of a robbery.”