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July 13, 2007
V 35 Issue 28

 
 
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US Senate vote on Hate Crimes close
US Senate vote on Hate Crimes close
Proponents hopeful about passage

by Lisa Wardle - SGN Staff Writer

Wednesday morning, U.S. Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) filed the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 1105) as an amendment for consideration to the Department of Defense Reauthorization currently being debated before the U.S. Senate. After an overwhelming vote in the House of Representatives this past May, the legislation is now pending a vote in the United States Senate.

If passed, the bill would add disability, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity to our nation's hate crimes laws. The pair of Senators have worked together for several years to improve government recognition and assistance with biased hate crimes. This was the fifth consecutive Congress at which Smith re-introduced the legislation. He has made many attempts to add sexual orientation to the federal hate crime laws and this new bill also proposes government assistance with the prosecution of offenders. Kennedy has served on the Senate for 44 years (after taking over the position from his brother John F. Kennedy when he was elected president) and regularly votes in support of Gay causes. He has made efforts to defeat a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and continuously fights for Queer inclusion in the hate crime definition.

Smith is newer to the United States Senate, having served since 1997. Though he does not support all Gay issues, such as same-sex marriages, Smith has made several efforts to increase the penalties for hate crimes based on sexuality. In his 2002 re-election campaign, Smith even featured Matthew Shepard's mother in a television spot.

"A principal responsibility of government is to protect and defend its citizens and to come to the aid of the mistreated. As a nation founded on the ideals of tolerance and justice, we simply cannot accept violence that is motivated by bias and hate," Senator Smith said earlier this spring during a meeting of Congress. "Current law is limited. Our proposal would change that, and change it permanently. As a tribute to Matthew and in recognition of the tireless effort of his mother Judy, this legislation will be known as the Matthew Shepard Bill."

In Wyoming, where there is currently no state definition of a hate crime at all, officials toiled away at solving the murder of Matthew Shepard. The investigation and trial forced one county to lay off five employees. The whole ordeal cost Albany County $150,000, and federal government did not assist in their financial burden. If the Act passes in the Senate, there will be more resources and information available to help solve and prosecute bias motivated crimes.

During the House debate in May, many groups voiced their opinions on the Act, both supporting it and not. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are over 290 civil rights, law enforcement, and civic and religious organizations in support of the bill. However, there will always be some who are against the 68 percent of Americans who support it. At the debate, several "pro-family" groups who opposed the bill and made some strong assertions about what would result from the Act's passing. The Family Research Council stated that the bill is a "thought crimes" bill and would penalize people for commenting on their anti-Gay beliefs.

"So-called 'hate crime' legislation would have a chilling effect on free speech by making unpopular ideas a basis for harsher treatment in criminal proceedings& The Hate Crimes Reporting Act of 1990 mandated that the statistics collected by the FBI define 'hate crimes' more broadly still, to include even acts of 'intimidation' (which can be as simple as name-calling). Approximately half the 'hate crimes' in the FBI statistics are in this category. Once the principle of punishing thoughts as well as actions is established, it will be a simple matter to broaden definitions until thoughts and speech alone trigger prosecution," stated Timothy J. Dailey from the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at the Family Research Council.

Though some of our progressive leaders have made a point in recent years that hate is not acceptable, it is unlikely that this bill will result in the extreme punishments that the Family Research Council believes, proponents of the Act argue. The point of the Matthew Shepard Act is not to deny people their first amendment rights (though most supporters are probably against bigotry), but to provide help to people who have been harmed in a hate crime.

Hate crimes are committed once every hour. Victims are bashed, beaten, jumped, pounded, kicked, hit, and punched on a regular basis in this country& but there are still plenty of states without any type of hate crime law. People aren't protected through their local law enforcements or the federal government. Growing up, most children are taught that hate is wrong, but when we see no formal punishment of it, sometimes hate becomes a group activity.

"The Matthew Shepard Act sends a strong message to America that hate and the violent crimes committed in its wake are not acceptable in our society. This crucial piece of legislation is an important step in the ongoing effort to erase hate. I cannot think of a single more resounding action for the Senate to take in our son Matthew's memory," said Judy Shepard, Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

"Without any further delay, it's time for Congress to provide local police and sheriffs' departments with the tools and resources they need to ensure that entire communities are not terrorized by hate violence," said Joe Solmonese, President of the Human Rights Campaign. "On behalf of the overwhelming majority of the American people, we stand today and urge the U.S. Senate to pass the Matthew Shepard Act and send a strong message that hate violence against any American will no longer be tolerated."

President Bush has said he his plans to veto the bill, but May's vote shows that there might still be a chance to override the President's decision. In a 237-180 bipartisan vote, over 20 of the House members were Republican. One of the two sponsoring Senators is a Republican. Proponents of the Act remain hopeful, because people who don't typically support Gay issues are backing this fight for equality.

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