By Miriam Raftery
November 1, 2009 (Washington D.C.) – Last week, President Barack Obama signed a defense budget bill which contains language to broaden the definition of hate crimes to include attacks based on gender, sexual orientation, or disability—adding to protections already in place for attacks based on race, religion or national origin. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act also creates a new federal crime for attacking U.S. military personnel because of their service.
News of the signing was hailed locally by Estela de los Rios, who led efforts to organize a Hate Crimes Conference recently in El Cajon. “I rejoice and embrace this grand victory,” de los Rios told East County Magazine. “Passing this bill will only strengthen and support the civil rights of all.”
The bill provides federal prosecutors with the ability to prosecute hate crimes when state prosecutors are unable or unwilling to do so. Two violent murders in 1998 prompted the bill, which took more than a decade to secure passage. Gay teenager Matthew Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Wyoming. He was found in a coma but later died. In Texas, three white Supremacists chained an African-American man, James Byrd Jr., to a pickup truck and dragged him three miles; he died of decapitation when the truck hit a culvert.
The Anti-Defamation League heralded the bill’s passage in Congress as a “monumental victory.”
Some religious leaders opposed the bill. “The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues,” Pat Robertson said on the Christian Broadcasting Network.
In fact, however, a statement appended to the hate crimes bill assures that a religious leader or anyone else cannot be prosecuted on the basis of speech, beliefs or association. Only violent actions motivated by hate against a protected group can be prosecuted as a hate crime.
Congressional Republicans tried to block the measure, arguing that such protections are not necessary, since those responsible for the Shepard and Byrd murders were convicted. Some also objected to Democrats adding hate crimes language into a defense bill.
In signing the bill, President Obama paid tribute to the late Senator Edward Kennedy, who supported the bill. He also acknowledged Judy Shepard, mother of the slain student whose death inspired the bill.
“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are,” Obama said in signing the measure.