In a historic act, President Barack Obama signed on Wednesday the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law.
The new law gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
Christopher Sanders, chair of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the legislation may help reduce hate crimes in Tennessee and across the country.
"The categories of sexual orientation and gender identity are part of federal law now," Sanders said. "Hate crimes against our community will be tracked, investigated, and prosecuted with the help of the federal government."
It has been about ten years since the legislation was first introduced in the 105th Congress. Since then, it went through 14 votes in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate before making it to the president’s desk. The legislation was added as a provision to the FY 2010 National Defense Authorization Act earlier this Summer. For a comprehensive retrospective and historical overview of hate crimes advocacy LoveConquersHate.org.
“This law honors our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short because of hate,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “Today’s signing of the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect LGBT Americans represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality. Although this is a major step in fighting the scourge of hate violence, it is not the end of the road. As a community, we will continue to dedicate ourselves to changing not only laws but also hearts and minds. We know that hate crimes not only harm individuals, but they terrorize entire communities. After more than a decade of advocacy, local police and sheriffs’ departments now have the full resources of the Justice Department available to them.”
Sanders echoed that sentiment saying that the legislation provides positive momentum that might help other pro-GLBT bills pass.
"I am particularly grateful that my own Congressman, Jim Cooper, supported the bill," Sanders said. "Now we hope that the President and Congress will move forward with other important legislation like ENDA."
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act honors the memory of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student brutally murdered in an act of hate violence in 1998, and James Byrd, an African-American man who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.
“We are incredibly grateful to Congress and the president for taking this step forward on behalf of hate crime victims and their families, especially given the continuing attacks on people simply for living their lives openly and honestly,” said Judy Shepard, executive director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. “But each of us can and must do much more to ensure true equality for all Americans.”
The new law also provides the Justice Department with the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions either by lending assistance or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of violent crime resulting in death or serious bodily injury that were motivated by bias. It also makes grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes committed by juveniles, train law enforcement officers, or to assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias motivated crimes.