Legislation that would extend the federal hate-crimes law to include the LGBT community was introduced in the House last week.
U.S. Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, also known as the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, on April 2 with 42 cosponsors.
None of the 19 representatives from Pennsylvania is cosponsoring the bill.
The legislation was sent to the Judiciary Committee, which Conyers chairs.
The bill would expand the 1969 federal hate-crimes law to allow the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. The current law offers protections based on race, color, religion or national origin.
The bill also would amend the current law to remove the existing requirement that the victim must be engaging in a federally protected activity during the offense — such as attending school at a public institution or serving jury duty on a state court — and provide resources and funding for local agencies to combat hate crimes.
Conyers and Kirk introduced the same legislation in March 2007, along with 137 cosponsors. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) spearheaded the companion bill in the Senate.
The bill, which both houses of Congress approved, was added as an amendment to a defense-spending bill but ultimately removed after a threatened veto from then-President George W. Bush.
Kennedy is expected to introduce a companion bill again this session, but his office could not be reached for comment.
President Barack Obama has said that if the bill passes, he will sign it.
There is currently no federal law mandating state and local police agencies to report hate crimes, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation tracked nearly 7,700 such incidents in 2007, 16.6 percent of which were motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the bill is a necessary step to protect all Americans.
“Each year, thousands of Americans are violently attacked just because of who they are,” Solmonese said. “These crimes not only harm individuals, they terrorize entire communities. After more than a decade of delay, it’s time to provide local police and sheriffs’ departments with the full resources of the Justice Department to address vicious hate crimes.”
Openly gay U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), a cosponsor of the bill, said in a statement last week that it’s integral that Congress take a leadership position on the issue and “enunciate clearly that hate-based violence targeting any American will no longer be tolerated.”
“The passage of the [bill] will not make all hate crimes go away. But this legislation gives state, local and federal law-enforcement authorities the necessary resources and tools to combat violent crimes based on prejudice and intended to terrorize a group of people or an entire community,” Baldwin said. “Such hate crimes are in desperate need of a federal response. I will work hard to move this legislation through Congress this year and look forward to seeing President Obama sign it into law.”
Organizations such as the National Sheriffs Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association and 26 state attorneys general all endorsed the legislation.
Earlier this week, HRC launched FightHateNow.org, a comprehensive site that provides the public with statistics and information, as well as first-hand testimonials, about LGBT hate crimes. Solmonese noted the site’s creation was motivated in part from distortions that the bill’s opponents have circulated in previous years, such as claims by numerous religious leaders that pastors could face prison time if they deliver anti-gay sermons.
The site also offers outlets for visitors to contact their lawmakers and advocate for the bill.
Some form of the Matthew Shepard Act has been introduced every session since 1999, although the previous session was the first time that gender identity was included in the bill.