Matthew Shepard Act: Hate Crimes Prevention Laws to be Expanded
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, an expansion of hate crimes law in the United States, may be passed by US Congress. The new law would allow federal prosecution of violence committed against someone based on their actual or perceived gender, disability, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, in addition to existing areas of discrimation such as race.
Democrats have been trying to update the hate crimes law for more than the past decade. Currently, it is a federal crime in the US to commit violence because of race, creed, or color. The Associated Press reports approximately half of all hate crimes are motivated by racism, followed by religious beliefs and sexual orientation.
"One has to look at the unfortunate history of our nation. There are groups that have been singled out, that have been targets of violence," the attorney general said. "We have to face and confront that reality."
Republicans have fought against passing the law, expressing concern about expanding federal power in this respect when hate crimes may also be prosecuted at state and local levels. According to Alabama Republican senator Jeff Sessions, many would ask why certain victims of violence should be singled out for special protection.
"That's part of the problem. Some are protected groups and get special protection under this law," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee's top Republican.
David Stacy, Senior policy advocate of Human Rights Campaign, a gay right groups, strongly supports the bill, explaining that certain types of victims are singled out for protection because they are the ones singled out for violence, for those very reasons.
"If you burn a cross on someone's lawn, or put a swastika on a synagogue, the intent is not just vandalism," said David Stacy, senior public policy advocate of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, a strong backer of the bill. "It's to send a message to intimidate the community."
Christian conservative groups have been fighting the proposed law, citing concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of religious beliefs. Some are worried that their pastors may be prosecuted under the hate crime law if they preach against homosexuality, though supporters of the bill are skeptical.
"These groups have long opposed any rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered Americans," said [David] Stacy. "One certainly has to question whether they believe this about hate-crimes laws in general or rather that this is really about their own bias against the LGBT community."
The Matthew Shepard Act is named for the victim of a hate crime in Wyoming, US. Matthew Wayne Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming when he was attacked, tortured, and and killed because he was gay, in October 1998.
The attack on Shepard, his death, and subsequent trial of his attackers resulted in national and international attention to the issue of sexual orientation, homophobia, and hate crimes and hate crime legislation. Shepard was the son of Dennis Shepard and Judy Shepard, who established the Matthew Shepard Foundation after their son's murder.
In 2002, The Laramie Project was directed by Moises Kaufman, a film and play about Shepard, his murder, and reactions to his death and ordeal and the issues it raised. The production met much acclaim, making a powerful and poignant statement and receiving four Emmy nominations, the Humanitas Prize, Best Film award from the National Board of Review (USA), an Open Palm Award nomination, and several other awards and nominations.