The U. S. House approved a bill last week that would add protections for LGBT individuals to the federal hate-crimes law.
Legislators voted 249-175 in favor of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act on April 29.
The bill, also known as the Matthew Shepard Act, 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 Justice Department greater jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute hate crimes.
“All Americans are one step closer to protection from hate violence thanks to today’s vote,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, last week. “Hate crimes are a scourge on our communities and it’s time we give law enforcement the tools they need to combat this serious problem.”
The day before the vote, President Obama issued a statement urging the House to pass the legislation, and Solmonese said the Senate should heed the president’s message and not “delay in passing this bill into law.”
U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a companion version of the bill in the Senate on April 28, along with 33 cosponsors. Both senators from Pennsylvania, Robert Casey (D) and Arlen Specter (D), signed on as cosponsors.
The bill is currently in the Judiciary Committee.
U.S. Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced the House bill, HR 1913, April 2 with 42 cosponsors; its support eventually grew to 95 cosponsors.
Of the 19 representatives from Pennsylvania, Reps. Bob Brady (D-1st Dist.), Joe Sestak (D-7th Dist.), Patrick Murphy (D-8th Dist.), Michael Doyle (D-14th Dist.) and Todd Russell Platts (R-19th Dist.) cosponsored HR 1913.
The House passed a version of the bill in the last legislative session and a Senate amendment was was withdrawn after a veto pledge from then-President George W. Bush.
Currently, 32 states have hate-crimes laws that are inclusive of sexual orientation, 11 of which also extend protections based on gender identity and expression.
Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-38th Dist.) quietly introduced a bill in the Pennsylvania Senate in February that seeks to add sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, ancestry and mental or physical disability as protected classes under the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act.
The state legislature had approved such changes to the law in 2002 but, following a suit from antigay group Repent America, the Commonwealth Court ruled in 2007 that the revisions were made unconstitutionally, citing a procedural technicality.
The bill, which has eight cosponsors, is currently in the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
Before last week’s House of Representatives vote, Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the bill’s pseudonym is inaccurate, arguing that Matthew Shepard, an openly gay Wyoming college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and later died, was the victim of a robbery and not a hate crime, calling the latter notion a “hoax.”
Foxx’s comment sparked outrage among LGBT and ally individuals.
Foxx sent Shepard’s mother, Judy — who had been in the House gallery when the comments were made — an apology earlier this week.