by Jessica Carreras
Last week, the federal Matthew Shephard Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in the U.S. Senate, following the April passage in the House of Representatives. The historic push for prohibition of crime based on sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression, prompted cheers from LGBT leaders across the nation, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Local LGBT leaders in Michigan are rejoicing the passage, saying that it is a crucial move not only toward legal equality, but societal equality.
“Should this legislation pass, I think it will be an important step by the federal government that we as a society will not tolerate crimes of violence against LGBT people, motivated by anti-LGBT animus,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney of the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project.
“For years, LGBT have disproportionately been victims of crime because of their sexual orientation and gender identity and this piece of legislation recognizes this.”
The legislation was originally introduced 12 years ago in both parts of Congress, but has never made it this close to passage until 2009. If the bill reaches President Barack Obama’s desk, he has promised to sign it into law.
Triangle Foundation Executive Director Alicia Skillman sees the possible passage as a long overdue shift in attitude toward LGBT Americans. “On one hand, it’s huge that an inclusive federal anti-hate crimes bill may become law,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s an example of how time consuming it is to get the right people to support our issues. When the country sees moves from Congress on our issues, the attitudes of people will begin to change for a more inclusive, peaceful and just society.”
Indeed, the bill still has a long way to go, and several obstacles to overcome. August will be spent ironing out differences between the two bills, which are manifold in the House and Senate versions of the bill. Most notably, the House version was passed as a stand-alone bill, while the Senate one – due to a concern for lack of support – was attached to the 2010 Defense Spending bill.
The Senate version is also mired by amendments that will make its passage that much more difficult, including a controversial amendment mandating the death penalty for some hate crimes. The modification, introduced by conservative Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, was suggested as a “poison pill” to cause supporters of the bill to back out. Both national and local LGBT organizations have spoken out against the amendment, and are urging supporters to tell their legislators that the amendment needs to come out before the final vote to approve the bill.
But though local LGBT organizations are happy about the possibility of national hate crimes legislation, they urged the state’s citizens not to forget about Michigan’s own legislation. The state’s hate crimes bill passed in the House of Representatives in May, but has not yet passed in the Senate.
The need, said leaders, rests in the fact that it is better to handle hate crimes under local law without the need for federal intervention. “I believe that the need for Michigan hate crime’s legislation still exists,” stated Michigan Equality co-chair Julie Nemecek. “The federal law allows the federal government to assist or take over when a local law enforcement agency is unwilling or unable to prosecute a violent crime against LGBT people, among others. Thus, there could be significant delay…”
A state law, said Nemecek, would allow Michigan “to prosecute hate crimes more immediately and effectively.”
Kaplan echoed her sentiments, adding that, “We didn’t abandon Michigan civil rights protections against discrimination for other groups merely because there already was federal legislation that passed.”
Skillman assured that local legislation would not be forgotten by the Triangle Foundation. The organization has been integral to the statewide effort to pass legislation. “The Michigan anti-hate crime initiative will not be abandoned,” she assured. “While federal law is necessary, we (will) continue to analyze the Michigan landscape for the best possible protections.”