The House is scheduled to vote today on the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill, also called the Matthew Shepard Act, would “permit greater federal involvement in investigating hate crimes and expand the federal definition of such crimes to include those motivated by gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.” Yesterday, President Obama urged Congress “to act on this important civil rights issue,” and pass the bill. Indeed, in 2007, the most recent year for which statics are available, there were 7,621 single-bias hate crimes that involved 8,999 offenses, more than 50 percent of which were racially-motivated.
The right wing, unsurprisingly, is up in arms over extending protection to victims of anti-gay crimes. Led by Rep. Steve King (R-IA), House Republicans took to the floor last night to warn that the bill would impose “tyranny,” create a “Big Brother” government, and end religious freedom:
REP MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): I feel that this hate crime legislation could be considered the very definition of tyranny.
REP. GRESHMAN BARRET (R-SC): This bill would inhibit religious freedom in our society — a scary thought.
REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R-TX): You think a pregnant mother does not deserve the protection of a homosexual? You think a military member doesn’t deserve the protection of a transvestite?
REP. STEVE KING (R-IA): I, Mr. Speaker, oppose and I defy the logic of the people that would advocate for such legislation the very idea we could divine what goes on in the heads of people when they commit crimes.
Watch a compilation:
Hate crimes laws go after violent crimes, not thoughts. In fact, the law specifically stipulates that “evidence of expression or associations of the defendant may not be introduced as substantive evidence at trial, unless the evidence specifically relates to that offense.”
Apparently unbeknownst to House Republicans, a federal hate crimes law already exists: Passed in 1968, it allowed federal investigation and prosecution of hate crimes based on race, religion, and national origin. The new law would simply add sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected groups, and allow local governments to get needed resources from the federal government for investigations and prosecutions. The need for such parity was made starkly clear more than a decade ago, in 1998, during the investigations of two different murders:
The Laramie, Wyoming Sheriff’s Office had to furlough five deputies in order to cover the more than $150,000 that it cost to investigate Matthew Shepard’s murder. Yet when Jasper, Texas investigated the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., it received $284,000 in federal funds because Byrd’s murder was motivated by race, rather than sexual orientation.
Since then, members of Congress have sought to pass an expanded hate crimes law. The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed both houses in 2007, but was stripped from a larger bill after President Bush vowed to veto it.
More than thirty states already have hate crime legislation that includes anti-gay crimes — and in none of those states has notorious gay hater Fred Phelps been arrested for his speech. It’s clear what the GOP is really concerned about is any perceived infringement on their right to discriminate against gay people.
Debating the bill on the House floor today, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) called Matthew Shepherd’s murder “a hoax” and denied that it was a hate crime. Watch it:
,The House passed the bill today, 249 to 175. 18 Republicans joined 231 Democrats to approve the bill.
,Statement from CAPAF Senior Vice President Winnie Stachelberg: “The Center for American Progress Action Fund applauds today’s passage of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 by a vote of 249–175 in the House of Representatives. From Matthew Shepard in 1998 to Angie Zapata in 2008, too many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans have been killed by hate-motivated violence. I am optimistic that the Senate will swiftly pass the companion Matthew Shepard Act, delivering this essential legislation to President Obama’s desk.”