House Passes Hate-Crimes Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an LGBT-inclusive federal hate-crimes bill on Wednesday afternoon.
By Kerry Eleveld

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an LGBT-inclusive federal hate-crimes bill on Wednesday afternoon with a 249-175 vote. Democratic representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, applauded the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act.

“The law routinely looks to the motivation behind a criminal act and treats the more heinous of them differently,” Nadler said on the House floor. “Manslaughter is different from premeditated murder, which is different from a contract killing. We also punish crimes differently if they are terrorist acts, defined as violent acts that ‘appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.'”

Republican representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina said that the idea of Matthew Shepard’s murder being called a hate crime is “a hoax” while his mother, Judy Shepard, looked on to the House floor from the gallery. Speaking of the slain college student, whose parents have since become ardent voices for the legislation, Foxx said, “we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of a robbery. It wasn’t because he was gay. This — the bill was named for him, [the] hate-crimes bill was named for him, but it’s really a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”

A Senate version of the bill was introduced Tuesday. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, anticipated the Senate would vote on the legislation, now called the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, by the end of the year.

“We’re confident that we’ll make progress in the Senate as well,” Solmonese said. “We’re in conversations with Senator [Harry] Reid and other leaders in the Senate to try to determine the most expeditious way to move the bill and one that keeps that bill intact and gets it to the president’s desk.”

President Obama issued a statement Tuesday, putting his full weight behind the measure: “I urge members on both sides of the aisle to act on this important civil rights issue by passing this legislation to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of intolerance — legislation that will enhance civil rights protections, while also protecting our freedom of speech and association. I also urge the Senate to work with my administration to finalize this bill and to take swift action.”

The bipartisan Senate bill is being carried by Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine. Other cosponsors include Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who switched his affiliation Tuesday from Republican to Democrat.

Civil rights and faith groups held a press conference call urging swift passage of the bill with leaders from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, American Association of People With Disabilities, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Council of La Raza, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Caroline Frederickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, said that discussion on the House floor Wednesday was sure to include warnings that the bill would impinge on freedom of speech and religious practices. She countered that since 2005 the bill has included specific provisions to protect basic First Amendment rights.

“The bill specifically blocks evidence of speech and associations that is not specifically related to the crimes,” she said, adding, “This bill will have the strongest protection against the misuse of a person’s free speech that Congress has enacted in the federal criminal code.”

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act enhances federal involvement to combat hate crimes and authorizes the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence against a person based on actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.

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