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VICTORY!
VICTORY!
Senate passes Hate Crimes legislation Matthew Shepard Act attached to Defense Authorization bill

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

The Matthew Shepard Act passed the Senate on Thursday, September 27, as an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2008 Department of Defense Authorization bill. A bipartisan vote of 60 to 39 to accept cloture ended debate on the bill and then a voice vote was called to approve the landmark legislation.

The bill would update and expands federal hate crimes laws to include bias motivated violence based on a victim's sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability, and provides new resources and tools to assist local law enforcement in prosecuting vicious crimes. According to the FBI, one in six hate crimes are motivated by the victim's sexual orientation.

Sen. Maria Cantwell applauded Senate passage of the legislation in a written statement provided to the Seattle Gay News on Thursday. "America was created on the idea that all people are created equal," said Cantwell. "Today, finally, we are recognizing these rights and giving law enforcement the tools to vigorously prosecute crimes motivated by hate or bias regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. Hate crimes must not be tolerated in America. I hope the President reconsiders his veto threat. "

Sen. Patty Murray did not return calls from the SGN seeking comment on Thursday. However, Murray had publicly supported similar legislation in the past.

The measure passed the House with a strong bipartisan margin of 237 to 180 on May 3rd. The two versions now must be reconciled by members of both houses of Congress before heading to President Bush for his signature.

In May, the White House called the measure "unnecessary" and "constitutionally questionable." White House spokesperson Dana Perino reiterated Bush's opposition shortly after the Senate vote. She declined to comment on the prospects for a veto now that the measure is part of the Defense Authorization bill.

"We believe that state and local law enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent they can," said Perino. The bill also faced opposition from several Republicans, including Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who called it "unwise, unnecessary and unconstitutional" and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) who is fighting to overturn a guilty plea he entered as a result of his arrest in a police sting operation in a Minneapolis airport men's bathroom.

The legislation had been introduced in the Senate by Senators Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR). "For those of you who do not know Matthew Shepard's story, it is truly heartbreaking," said Smith during debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday. "He was murdered by two men simply for who he was, because he was Gay. To think that such virulent hatred of another person's sexual orientation drove another to commit such a heinous act is truly unthinkable. Sadly, this case is not isolated."

Shepard's parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, released a statement Thursday. "The Matthew Shepard Act is an essential step to erasing hate in America and we are humbled that it bears our son's name," they said. "It has been almost nine years since Matthew was taken from us. This bill is a fitting tribute to his memory and to all of those who have lost their lives to hate."

National LGBT advocacy organizations released statements noting their delight over the bills passage. "For over a decade our community has worked tirelessly to ensure protections to combat violence motivated b

y hate and today we are the closest we have ever been to seeing that become a reality," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "Congress has taken an historic step forward and moved our country closer to the realization that all Americans, including the GLBT community, are part of the fabric of our nation. The new leadership in Congress fully understands that for too long our community has been terrorized by hate violence. And today, the U.S. Senate has sent a clear message to every corner of our country that we will no longer turn a blind eye to anti-Gay violence in America."

Matt Foreman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, agreed. "At long last, Congress is putting a bill on the president's desk to condemn and respond to violent crimes based on hatred of a person's sexual orientation, gender, gender-identity or disability," he said. "Laws ultimately reflect a nation's values and today's vote says that America rejects all forms of hate violence, including bias-motivated crimes against Lesbian, Gay, bisexual and transgender people.

"We call upon the president to work with-rather than oppose-the Congress, the overwhelming majority of the public and the national and local law enforcement leaders in enacting this important legislation."

Twenty-six state Attorneys General, including 23 from states with anti-hate crimes laws already on the books supported the legislation. In addition, 230 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations also voiced their support. They included the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association, the NAACP, the Episcopal Church, the League of Women Voters, the Anti-Defamation League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the YWCA of the USA and the United Methodist Church.

Many faith-based conservative organizations had argued that the bill went too far and could potentially infringe upon religious free speech. However, the American Civil Liberties Union disagrees.

"The hate crimes legislation is more protective of free speech than any other criminal law in the entire U.S. code," said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Chris Anders. "The amendment makes clear that violent hate crimes will be punished, but not mere thoughts, speech or belief. This legislation protects two fundamental American values because being able to live without the fear of being attacked just for being yourself is as American as the right to free speech."
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