Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hate Crimes Update: Thank Your Senators and Representatives


As you know, last week the Senate debated the Matthew Shepard Act, a bill that will expand hate crimes legislation to include violent crimes inspired by the victim’s (perceived) sexual orientation and gender identity. On Thursday, July 16, the Senate voted 63-28 in favor to include the Matthew Shepard Act as an amendment to the Department of Defense Authorization Act (DoD), with all Democrats (excluding Senators Byrd and Kennedy who are absent) and five Republicans voting in favor.

This is a major development in the fight for LGBT rights and protections and if your senators voted in favor of the Matthew Shepard Act please take a moment to call them at the Senate switchboard at 202 224 3121 and thank them for their support. These calls are as important as the calls we asked you to make earlier, because it shows that you are paying attention to what is going on in Washington concerning LGBT issues. Please make these calls today.

But despite this success, we are not there yet!

Yesterday, the Senate voted in favor of including additional amendments introduced by Senator Sessions (R - Alabama). These amendments, one requiring the Attorney General to establish criteria for determining whether a crime was motivated by the status of the victim and one making the death penalty a requirement for certain hate crimes, are unnecessary, weaken the effectiveness of the hate crimes bill, and potentially could make the bill such a hot topic issue that it runs the risk of being dropped during the upcoming session of the House-Senate conference committee that will combine the House and Senate bills into one bill.

The Matthew Shepard Act will not be law until the DoD bill has been approved by the Senate, the House-Senate conference committee does not alter the bill, the updated version of the DoD is passed by both the House and the Senate, and, finally, President Obama signs it into law. This means that we will have to continue pressuring Congress on this issue until all stages are successfully completed. If at any point in time the Matthew Shepard Act is challenged it is unlikely there will be a hate crimes expansion this year.

Do not allow anyone to derail this vital hate crimes legislation, and do not allow those who support the Matthew Shepard Act in the House and Senate to weaken their resolve on this issue.

We need to act! Therefore, in the coming weeks call, write or e-mail your members of Congress (Click here for a list of contact information for senators and here for representatives). If they supported the Matthew Shepard Act, thank them for doing so. But also urge them to make sure the bill will make it to President Obama’s desk in its original form. Please ask your constituents to do the same. None of this takes more than a few minutes, but it can be exceptionally important in making sure that Congress does the right thing, and passes the Matthew Shepard Act.

More information about the Matthew Shepard Act

Learn more about the act by downloading CenterLink Hate Crimes Factsheet - Senate 2009-07.

What is the Matthew Shepard Act?

The Matthew Shepard Act (officially the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act or LLEHCPA) is a bill that, if passed, would expand the 1969 and 1994 federal hate-crime laws to include crimes motivated by the victim’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity. The act is named for Matthew Shepard, the 21 year old college student who was tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 because of his homosexuality, one of the many victims of crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the United States each year.

If passed, what would the Matthew Shepard Act actually do?

On the most basic level, it would allow the federal government to prosecute those who commit hate crimes, and would increase the penalties received by the culprits. It will also lift the prerequisite that the federal government cannot intervene unless the victim had been involved in a federally protected activity (such as voting) when the crime occurred. If passed, the Matthew Shepard Act will also allocate more funds to investigate hate crimes, and require the FBI to track statistics on hate crimes committed against transgender people (hate crimes based on sexual orientation are already being tracked).

Is the Matthew Shepard Act really necessary?

Yes. Hate crimes differ from ‘normal’ crimes in that they do not just cause harm to an individual and his or her circle of family and friends, but also to an entire community. When passed, the Matthew Shepard Act will lead to harsher punishment to those who commit hate crimes against members (or perceived members) of the LGBT community and in doing so will send the message that any form of violence committed against an individual because of that person’s (perceived) sexual orientation or gender identity is an attack on the LGBT community as a whole, and unacceptable to society. This is major progress in the fight against gay bashing, as well as the fight for gay rights in general: the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act sends a clear message that Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, do not hate to live in fear.

Will the Matthew Shepard Act restrict freedom of speech?

This argument is widely made against the act by Republicans in Congress. While violence in any shape or form, physical or emotional, is despicable and unacceptable, the Matthew Shepard Act is only concerned with physical violence. When passed, the Matthew Shepard Act will not lead to the prosecution of those who make violent statements (outrageous and wrong as they may be) against the LGBT community. Any statements being made that suggest that the Matthew Shepard Act would create a thought police, or would limit the freedom of speech or religion, are either misguided or intentionally false.

What can you do to help pass the Matthew Shepard Act?

Call, write, or e-mail your senators and representatives. If they supported the Matthew Shepard Act, thank them for doing so. But also urge them to make sure the bill will make it to President Obama’s desk in its original form. Please ask your constituents to do the same.

Visit CenterLink for more information.