The U.S. Senate yesterday passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act named for Matthew Shepard, the young man who died at a Fort Collins hospital in 1998 after being beaten in Wyoming by men who targeted him because he was gay.
Democratic lawmakers championed the bill. Republicans largely opposed it. At least four Republicans voted with the Democrats, reportedly to end a possible filibuster. They were Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, as well as George Voinovich of Ohio, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. The president will sign the Act into law in the coming days. Opposition was based mostly on a reading of the bill that saw it limiting the rights of religious believers to speak out against homosexuality.
Earlier this month Tom Perez, the assistant attorney general now in charge of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, told his staff that the Hate Crimes Act would be a powerful weapon with which to attack discrimination against lesbian, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.
Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of Focus on the Family Action, reacted with concern.
“Too often it’s religious liberty that’s at stake when homosexuality is promoted in our society. The rights of people of faith who adhere to a biblical view of sexuality should not be crushed under the Obama administration’s political promises to homosexual activists.”
The Shepard Act, however, protects freedom of speech in matters of sexual identity the same way hate crimes legislation on the books for years has protected expression in matters of race. Analysts baffled by conservative concerns that the new measure would create “thought crimes” have pointed out that U.S. 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.
Democrats frustrated after a decade of obfuscation on the part of conservative lawmakers, resorted to strategy to pass the Act, attaching it to a Defense spending bill Republicans were loath to vote against.
Yesterday, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet lauded the passage of the measure.
“As we learned in the civil rights era, sometimes communities need assistance and resources from the federal government when they have to confront the most emotional and dangerous kinds of crimes.”