Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act passes despite GOP opposition

On Thursday the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed as part of the National Defense and Authorization Act of 2009 in the House and will now go to the president to be signed into law. Democrats hailed its passage while Republicans, including Colorado U.S. Reps Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman, voiced regrets at feeling compelled to vote against the Defense bill because it included the Hate Crimes amendment, which they said amounts to an attack on freedom.

In a release, Colorado 1st District U.S. Congresswoman Diana Degette, D-Denver, a cosponsor of the Act, said it will “close gaps in federal law to help hate crimes committed because of a person’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.”

The bill is named for Mathew Shepard, who was tied to a fence and beaten in Wyoming by two men, one of whom now admits to targeting Shepard for being gay. He died from his injuries in a hospital in Fort Collins. In a racist attack in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd was chained to the back of a truck and decapitated as he was dragged through the streets.

“When signed by President Obama, this will be the first federal law specifically protecting LGBT Americans,” DeGette said, “This Act will provide state and local law enforcement agencies with resources they need to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, while also protecting the exercise of free speech under our Constitution.”

Openly gay 2nd District U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, also a co-sponsor of the bill, sent out a transcript of a House floor speech he gave yesterday. He called for military and political leaders to seek an end to the wars pulling U.S. troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and lauded the hate crimes amendment.

Hate crimes are not limited to the GLBT community—they occur every day, in every state, and perpetuate a climate of fear throughout minority communities. And what makes these crimes so odious, is that they are not just crimes against individuals; they are crimes against entire communities create environments of fear. There is a difference between burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family and an act of simple arson. This legislation clarifies that our country has zero tolerance for hate crimes.

Since its introduction earlier this year, Republicans as a group have largely opposed the amendment, providing an evolving series of reasons that have spurred head-scratching skepticism and outrage.

Sixth District U.S. Rep. Coffman, R-Aurora, a former Marine, yesterday sent out a strongly worded release against the Hate Crimes Act.

The Senate-passed version of the “Hate Crimes” legislation placed in the final conference report will have chilling effects on religious freedoms and free speech. I strongly oppose including the measure in a bill that is designed to provide resources for our soldiers whose job it is to protect the very freedoms this provision will erode.

In the end, however, Coffman voted for the larger Defense bill.*

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, prepared a similar release, voicing regret for voting against the Defense bill as part of his opposition to the Hate Crimes Act.

I have a long history of supporting our men and women in uniform, but I cannot give my support to a bill to which the Majority in this Congress has cynically attached a hate crimes bill. This legislation threatens the very freedoms of speech and religion that our soldiers are fighting to protect.

Conservative political and Christian groups, including James Dobson’s Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, have said the new bill creates “thought crimes” by outlawing not just actions but beliefs and attitudes. They have also claimed the bill legitimizes illegal sexual practices such as pedophilia.

Baffled analysts have pointed out that the law has long made distinctions for motive in all kinds of crimes. Domestic abuse is a different crime than battery, for example, and is treated differently in the courts.

Opposition may turn mostly, however, on perception that Church leaders preaching against homosexuality might now be liable under the Act for criminal acts performed, for example, by members of the congregation.

But the bill protects freedom of speech in matters of sexual-identity the same as it has for years in matters of race. And as the Colorado Independent reported in May, assertions that the Act would protect pedophiles under the category of a sexual orientation were roundly dismissed as preposterous by legal and criminology analysts quoted at the Pulitizer Prize-winning PolitiFact.com, a project of the St. Petersburg Times. The site awarded the claim its special “Pants on Fire” designation, reserved for lies so outrageous there isn’t a shred of truth to be found.

Edit Note: An earlier version failed to make it clear that Rep. Coffman ultimately voted for the Defense Act after railing against the Hate Crimes amendment.

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Joseph Boven

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