The Senate passed the Matthew Shepard Act yesterday on a voice vote after nine Republicans joined in a 60-39 vote to end debate. The Act was attached to the defense authorization bill, which makes a threatened veto at least somewhat problematic (the House passed the bill as a standalone in May). The Bush administration says it just wants to prosecute all violent crimes the same way, but I haven’t heard it proposing a repeal of existing federal hate crimes law, which covers race, religion, color, and national origin.
The Matthew Shepard Act adds sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and disability, and authorizes the federal government to provide assistance to states in tracking, investigating, and prosecuting these crimes — or to step in and prosecute if state governments fail to do so. That’s what they’d have to do in Alabama, which, despite repeated efforts, has not added sexual orientation or gender identity to its existing law. (And, of course, Alabama Sens. Shelby and Sessions both voted no on the cloture motion.)
I think there can be honest disagreement over the need for hate crimes laws in general. This is the “crime is crime,” argument. Certainly, in an ideal world, assaults or murders would be prosecuted without regard to the identity of the victim. But we have a long history of doing just the opposite: centuries of prosecuting crimes against white victims more vigorously than crimes against people of color, use of various iterations of the “gay panic” defense to justify attacks on people who are or are perceived to be gay, and, more legitimately, punishing crimes against law enforcement officers more harshly than those against civilians.
There’s also the argument that hate crimes laws punish thought or restrict freedom of speech. The most extreme version comes from leaders of the religious right, who have fought against adding sexual orientation to the statute by telling their followers that they will no longer be allowed to publicly condemn homosexuality. That’s patently untrue, but it’s a great fundraising tool. Unless one follows through on the thought or action by committing violence against another person, there is no crime to prosecute. And prosecutors already consider intent when determining charges against suspects. This is not a new concept. Eric Rudolph killed three people, but he also terrorized countless others. That made a difference in how his crime was perceived.
Reality is there has been a federal hate crime statute in place since 1969. The most vocal opponents of the Matthew Shepard Act are not the people who have a philosophical objection to all hate crimes laws. They are the aforementioned gay-hating right-wing religious mullahs and the Republican lawmakers who cowtow to them. The objection is not to the existing law, which would provide for sentencing enhancements in the unlikely event that, say, James Dobson were to be attacked by a violent band of Christian-bashers. The objection is to providing that same protection to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people, fellow human beings that the religious right considers undeserving.
We’ll see whether Bush is willing to veto a defense bill just to make the fundies happy. Stay tuned.