Hate Crimes Bill Heads to Obama
After fighting for new hate crimes legislation for a dozen years, union and civil rights activists praised the final passage of a bill that expands the definition of federal hate crimes and removes unnecessary obstacles to prosecution.
The Senate passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act late last week by a 68-29 margin. The bill, which was attached to a Defense authorization measure, already had cleared the House. President Obama is expected to sign it into law as early as this week.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), which includes the AFL-CIO and several unions, applauded lawmakers for “recognizing the fundamental right of all Americans to be protected from violence because of their race, the way they worship, their sexual orientation, gender identity or disability status.”
Congress’ decision to pass this bill sends a clear message to these victims of violence and their families…that we value every American’s basic civil and human right to be safe and free from physical harm.
The bill is named for Shepard, a gay student killed in Wyoming, and for Byrd, an African American who was chained to a truck and dragged to death in Texas. Both tragedies occurred in 1998.
The legislation expands coverage of hate crimes to include crimes based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability. Until now, the Justice Department could investigate only hate crimes motivated by the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin.
The bill also gives the federal government jurisdiction over prosecuting hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate or when local authorities are unwilling or do not have the resources to do so themselves.
The AFL-CIO long has supported hate crimes legislation. In 2005, the Executive Council issued a statement that said:
Horrifying hate crimes designed to intimidate and harass individuals because of their membership in particular groups have no place in our society.
We renew our call for Congress to pass and the president to sign hate crimes legislation that will enable federal authorities to assist local prosecutions and, where appropriate, investigate and prosecute cases in which bias-motivated violence occurs because of the victim’s race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or disability.