Viewpoint: Hate crime act first step in a longer journey

By U.S. Rep. Gary Peters

On Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama took a major step toward ensuring equality under the law for all people by signing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.

This important, necessary legislation extends protections to victims of violent hate crimes committed based on a person's actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and/or disability. It also strengthens existing hate crimes protections for a variety of other categories, including race, color, religion, national origin and ethnicity.

It has been over a decade since Matthew Shepard was murdered for being gay and James Byrd Jr. was murdered for being black, but the legislation bearing their names has at long last been signed into law.

According to FBI statistics, 118,000 hate crimes have been reported since 1991. During the same period of time, reported bias motivated crimes based on sexual orientation more than tripled; yet before President Obama signed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law, the federal government had no authority to assist states and municipalities in dealing with even the most violent, heinous hate crimes against gay and lesbian Americans. The FBI's 2007 Uniform Crime Reports showed that reported violent crimes based on sexual orientation constituted approximately one out of six hate crimes committed in 2007.

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act will provide assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies and amend federal law to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of violent, bias-motivated crimes. This important legislation is backed by a number of major law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National District Attorneys Association and the National Sheriffs Association.

While opponents say these new provisions will criminalize speech, this is not the case. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act only applies to bias-motivated violent crimes and does not impinge public speech or writing. This has been endorsed by a number of religious groups, including the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Interfaith Alliance, the Presbyterian Church, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the United Methodist Church and the Congress of National Black Churches.

I co-sponsored for the Hate Crimes Prevention Act because it is grounded in fundamental American values, recognizing the dignity of every person, protecting religious freedom and freedom of speech. This legislation ensures that violence against individuals based on who they are will not be tolerated in the United States of America.

While I am certainly proud to have been an original co-sponsor of this significant legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act would not have become law without the tireless work of my colleague, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. Sen. Levin has been a leader on LGBT equality issues for years, and he has consistently worked to pass hate crimes legislation since 1997 when the late Senator Edward Kennedy introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the 105th Congress. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Levin worked through the joint conference committee with the House to ensure the act remained in the final National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 bill signed by the President.

I am honored to have been a part of enacting the first civil rights legislation protecting LGBT Americans, but there is still much more progress to be made. I am a member of the bi-partisan Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, a group comprised of Members of Congress who are strongly committed to achieving the full enjoyment of equal rights for LGBT people in the U.S. and around the world. I will continue working with my colleagues to pass legislation ensuring equality for all people under the law, including ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. ENDA will make it illegal to fire, refuse to hire, deny promotion, or otherwise discriminate in the workplace based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Enacting the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law is a momentous milestone in the fight for equality, but we still have much work to do.

Gary Peters (D-Michigan) was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008.
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