Senate Sends Landmark Hate Crimes Bill to President Obama
October 22, 2009 - Posted by Tyler Lewis
UPDATE: On October 28, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.
Today, the Senate gave final congressional approval 68-29 to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which expands the definition of federal hate crimes and removes unnecessary obstacles to federal prosecution.
With President Obama likely to sign the Act into law soon, civil rights groups are celebrating a historic achievement following more than a decade of advocacy.
"We applaud lawmakers for recognizing the fundamental right of all Americans to be protected from violence because of their race, the way they worship, their sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability status. Congress' decision to pass this bill sends a clear message to these victims of violence and their families – individuals like Stephen Tyrone Johns of Washington, D.C., Sean Kennedy of South Carolina, Angie Zapata of Colorado, Luis Ramirez of Pennsylvania, and Matthew Shepard of Wyoming – that we value every American's basic civil and human right to be safe and free from physical harm," Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said.
The Act authorizes the federal government to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated crimes based on the victim's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Currently, the Department of Justice can only investigate hate crimes motivated by the victim's race, color, religion, and national origin when the victim is engaged in a federally protected activity, such as serving on a jury
The bill also gives the federal government jurisdiction over prosecuting hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate or when local authorities are unwilling or do not have the resources to do so themselves. Local authorities would also receive additional resources to combat hate crimes.
A version of the Act was introduced 12 years ago, and the House of Representatives and the Senate have passed some version of it at various times since then. A diverse coalition of more than 300 civil rights, professional, civic, educational, and religious groups, 26 state attorneys general, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and virtually every major national law enforcement organizations in America rallied in support of the Act over the years, recognizing that hate violence is still a major problem in the U.S.