The U.S. House of Representatives voted
Wednesday in favor of including disability, gender and sexual
orientation to the list of hate crime protections over the objections
The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes
Prevention Act (HR1913) is also known as the Matthew Shepard Act.
Shepard, a student at the University of Wyoming, was killed in 1998
by two men he met in a gay bar. He was beaten and left to die
shackled to a post along a rural road near Laramie.
Eighteen Republicans crossed the aisle
to join Democrats in approving the legislation in a 249 to 175 vote.
Seventeen Democrats voted against the measure.
The bill defines hate crimes as those
motivated by prejudice against race, color, religion, national
origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
It would allow the Attorney General to assist cities and states in
the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. Legislators passed
a similar bill in 2007, but the bill sank under the weight of a veto
threat from President George W. Bush.
Tuesday, President Barack Obama issued
a statement urging lawmakers to pass the measure.
“I urge members on both sides of the
aisle to act on this important civil rights issue by passing this
legislation to protect all of our citizens from violent acts of
intolerance – legislation that will enhance civil rights
protections while also protecting our freedoms of speech and
association,” Obama said.
The House version of the bill was
sponsored by openly gay Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Massachusetts Senator Ted
Kennedy has sponsored the measure.
The bill's outcome in the Senate, where
passage depends on support from moderate Republicans, remains
Gay rights groups began lobbying for
the legislation in 2003. According to MAPLight.org, a website that
tracks political contributions, proponents gave nearly $4 million to
House members that approved the bill.
Opponents of the bill argue that the
measure would have a chilling effect on free speech and restrict
religious liberties, despite its included First Amendment
Representative Debbie Wasserman
Schultz, a Democrat from Florida and co-sponsor, questioned those
“I wonder if our friends on the other
side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were
talking about hate crimes based on race or religion,” she said,
referring to Republican opponents. “It seems to me it is the
category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the
fact that we have hate crimes laws at all.”
On the House floor, Representative
Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina, denied Matthew
Shepard died from a hate crime, calling his martyrdom a hoax.
“The bill was named after a very
unfortunate incident that happened, where a young man was killed, but
we know that that young man was killed in the commitment of robbery.
It wasn't because he was gay. The bill was named for him, the hate
crimes bill was named for him, but it's … really a hoax, that that
continues to be used as an excuse for passing these bills.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law
Center, a group that monitors hate groups, the number of active hate
groups in the United States has soared by 54% since 2000. The group
reported 926 active hate groups in 2008.