A committee of the U. S. Senate heard testimony last week on a bill that would include sexual orientation and gender identity in the federal hate-crimes law.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s June 25 hearing on the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Protection Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, garnered testimony from six individuals, four of whom supported the bill, including, for the first time, the U.S. attorney general.
Attorney General Eric Holder began his remarks by noting that he came before the same committee in 1998, when he was a deputy attorney general, to back a bill that was almost identical to the current legislation.
“While it is unfortunate that 11 years have come and gone without this bill becoming law, I am confident that we can make the important protections that it offers a reality this year,” Holder said. “One of my highest personal priorities upon returning to the Justice Department is to do everything I can to help ensure that this legislation finally becomes law.”
The bill, which the House passed in April and which President Obama has pledged to sign, would expand the 1969 hate-crimes law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, gender and mental or physical disability; provide funding to local and state agencies to investigate hate crimes; remove the current stipulation that offenses must be committed while a victim is engaging in a federally protected activity; and provide the Department of Justice greater jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
Holder noted that perpetrators of hate crimes “seek to deny the humanity that we all share,” regardless of race, religion or “whom we choose to love,” and cited statistics that more 12,000 hate-crimes incidents between 1998-2007 were motivated by the victims’ sexual orientation.
“These crimes fell entirely outside the scope of current federal jurisdiction,” Holder said. “The department therefore welcomes the expanded coverage ... which would allow us to prosecute and deter violent acts of this sort more effectively.”
Several Republicans on the panel questioned Holder about the necessity of increased federal jurisdiction over such crimes.
“Murders occur all over America every day,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). “Robberies, assaults, rapes, burglaries occur every day, and those are handled by our state and local jurisdictions. They do a pretty good job.”
Holder countered that while some municipalities may effectively be able to investigate and prosecute crimes, others may lack the resources to do so.
Others testifying in favor of the bill included the Rev. Mark Achtemeier, theology professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary, who sought to counter the arguments of some religious leaders who have vocalized that the legislation could lead to preachers being arrested for speaking out against homosexuality.
“The Matthew Shepard Act targets not speech or thought or religious expression, but violent crime,” Achtemeier said. “We are talking here about physical assault on the person of another solely because of who they are. Violent attacks on another person are not a legitimate expression of anyone’s belief, Christian or otherwise. There is nothing in this legislation for law-abiding Christians to fear.”
Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, also provided remarks in support of the legislation, noting that the fundamental cause of bias-motivated violence “is the persistence of racism, bigotry, homophobia and anti-Semitism,” to which there are “no quick, complete solutions.”
He addded that the federal government has the opportunity and obligation to take on a leadership role in combating such prejudices.
Janet Langhart Cohen, playwright and wife of former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, told the committee about her work, “Anne & Emmett,” a story about Anne Frank and Emmett Till. Cohen’s play was scheduled to debut at the Holocaust Museum earlier this month, but was postponed after a security guard was murdered at the museum by an alleged white supremacist.
“My play is a call to action, to have our society not be silent witnesses and bystanders, but to act,” Cohen said. “I call on you to act. To pass this hate-crimes legislation that is expanded to include those of us who are the most vulnerable ... because of our race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identification [and] those of us who are disabled and physically challenged. Although you may not find yourself representing any of those groups, you’re not safe either when hate decides to strike.”
Testifying against the bill were Brian W. Walsh, senior legal research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, and Gail Heriot, member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, submitted written testimony, which was read during the hearing.
In a statement following the hearing, Solmonese expressed thanks to the committee for taking the testimony and urged the legislative body to take action on the bill before Congress’ August recess.
“After more than a decade and nine successful votes in Congress, there is no good reason for any delay on bringing this bill to the president’s desk,” Solmonese said. “Too many families have been devastated by hate violence. We must finally pass this bill and start the important steps to erasing hate in our country.”