- Gay, civil rights activists hail passage of Matthew Shepard hate crimes act
- Read ‘Hate Crimes in Florida’ 2008 report
BY STEVE ROTHAUS
In a groundbreaking vote, the Senate on Thursday added sexual orientation to U.S. hate-crime law, which would give the Justice Department the power to prosecute bias-motivated crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
The Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act -- tacked on to the federal Defense Department budget -- passed the Senate on a 68-29 vote. Florida’s delegation split: Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted for the bill; Republican Sen. George Lemiuex voted against.
The House passed the budget with the same provision on Oct. 8. Now it will be sent to President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly pledged to sign the revised hate crimes law.
Florida, which already has a hate-crime law that includes sexual orientation, coincidentally released its annual hate crimes report on Thursday, showing 182 bias attacks in 2008 a small drop from the previous year.
“Dennis and I are extremely proud of the Senate for once again passing this historic measure of protection for victims of these brutal crimes,'' said Judy Shepard, president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Board. “Knowing that the president will sign it, unlike his predecessor, has made all the hard work this year to pass it worthwhile. Hate crimes continue to affect far too many Americans who are simply trying to live their lives
honestly, and they need to know that their government will protect them from violence, and provide appropriate justice for victims and their families.''
In October 1998, the killing of Judy and Dennis Shepard's 21-year-old son, Matthew, galvanized activists around the globe. He became a symbol of violence against gays when two young men picked him up in a Wyoming bar and drove him to a remote part of Laramie. They pistol whipped him, tortured him and tied him to a fence like a scarecrow. Then they left him to die.
The same year, three white men in Jasper, Texas, murdered James Byrd Jr., 49, an African American. Byrd was beaten, stripped, chained by the ankles to a pickup truck and dragged three miles to his death.
Although Florida and many other states already have hate-crime laws encompassing sexual orientation, the new law allows federal prosecution which for the first time would provide a means for criminal action in states without such a law.
Under the legislation, federal prosecutors could step in to try violent hate-crime cases if local authorities won't. It also allows federal funding for law enforcement to handle the cost of investigation and judicial proceedings, and would make grants available for training and prevention programs at the local level.
Many conservatives fought the bill.
“In a slap to the face of our servicemen and women, they attached hate crimes' legislation to the final defense bill, forcing Congress to choose between expanding hate crimes or making our military go without,'' said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. "This hate crimes provision is part of a radical social agenda that could ultimately silence Christians and use the force of government to marginalize anyone whose faith is at odds with homosexuality.''
Gay activists across the nation quickly hailed passage of the hate crimes law, originally introduced by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
“Today’s vote marks a milestone for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans,'' said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund. “The hate crimes bill now shifts to the president. With his signature, President Obama will usher in a new era one in which hate-motivated violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people will no longer be tolerated. Our country will finally take an unequivocal stand against the bigotry that too often leads to violence against LGBT people, simply for being who they are.''
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called the law "our nation's first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.''
Last year in Florida, police agencies reported 182 hate crimes on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, and advanced age. That's about 6 percent fewer than in 2007. Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties had the most such crimes, according to the attorney general's annual Hate Crimes Report.
Crimes based on race, which accounted for 71 percent of Florida hate crimes a decade ago, now account for 47 percent. Religion and sexual orientation each now account for about 20 percent.
“It's not a huge increase when you look at the numbers,'' said David Barkey, southern area counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. The reported 38 hate crimes with religious motivation last year was an increase of 10 from the previous year.
“I would be hesitant to attribute it to a increase in bias,'' Barkey said, because the report does not break down incidents by specific religions.
Sexual orientation as a motivation increased from 28 in 2007 to 35 in 2008.
Broward reported 25 hate crimes, the most of any county, up from 17 in 2007 and down from 50 in 2006. With its large gay population, Broward reported 9 crimes based on sexual orientation, 10 on race and and 6 on religion.
It's impossible "to pinpoint exactly'' why the numbers fluctuate, said Broward Sheriff's Cmdr. Richard Wierzbicki, in charge of BSO's hate crimes/anti-bias task force, which began in Sept. 2008. "One thing we stressed this year was for people to report crimes and not to feel intimidated.''
Herald staff writer Jaweed Kaleem contributed to this report.