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Hate Crime Hulabaloo

July 28, 2009

There has been a lot of talking within the past week about the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was approved by the U.S. Congress on Thursday, July 23. This act is part of a larger Defense Spending bill that will have to go through a House-Senate committee to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions. Both of Alaska’s Senators, Begich and Murkowski, supported the bill, and by proxy, the Matthew Shepard Act. Good on them.

Matthew Shepard

Matthew Shepard

Jason Marsden, Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, explains that the act “provides grants and law-enforcement assistance to local governments to prevent hate crimes based on victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity, and allows federal prosecutions where local authorities cannot or will not secure convictions.” There have been some amendments tacked on to the act in recent days, however. From the Philadelphia Gay News:

“This week, Sen. Jeffrey Sessions (R-Ala.) introduced a series of amendments in an apparent attempt to derail the bill.

Sessions’ amendments stipulate that the U.S. Attorney General identify and prosecute hate crimes on a “neutral and objective” basis; that those who commit a hate crime that results in death be eligible for the death penalty; and that hate-crimes protections be extended to military members and their families.

The Senate approved the first two measures in a voice vote and voted 92-0 in a roll call to approve the third amendment.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) proposed a successful amendment that allows for stricter implementation of the death-penalty stipulation.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, asserted that Sessions’ death-penalty amendment was designed to prevent the passage of the bill and called that tactic “disingenuous, outrageous and immoral.”

Senator Sessions

Senator Sessions

Sen. Sessions has shoved his foot in the door and allowed in the threat of the death penalty in order to add confusion to the issue.  Many of the groups that support this bill, such as the Human Rights Campaign, are opposed to the death penalty.  Adding this amendment takes the intentions of the bill further than they were meant to go, fanning the flames of fear-mongers that feel this bill, and other hate-crime legislation, turns law-enforcement into “thought police.”  Carter Clewes, in an opinion piece to the San Francisco Examiner, accuses the Senate of rushing through the bill in order to protected “special classes” that do not include the white, heterosexual male.  Mr. Clewes, also the Director of Communications for Americans for Limited Government, continued that “By singling out some for special protection and consigning others to malicious prosecution, the Obama-Holder tandem is ringing down the curtain on “equal justice under law,” raising the specter of a country where a small minority of privileged characters (blacks make up approximately 12 percent of the population, homosexuals 2 percent) receive preferential treatment as ‘special victims.’”

Link here for another charming article from the Philadelphia Enquirer

Link here for another charming article from the Philadelphia Enquirer

It’s not that I want to accuse those that oppose legal protections to minorities as being bigoted, it’s that they don’t leave me another option.  You kind of lose whatever moral ground you have with me if the only argument you can raise is that “the rights of prejudice for white, heterosexual males will be limited.”  As someone married to a white, heterosexual male, I can attest that not all of them are ignorant bigots, but they do seem to have to shoulder the blame for those that are on a daily basis.

Diane Dimond, of the Huffington Post, argues that the classification of “hate crime” distracts law enforcement from the true goal, which should be prevention.  “Hate is the name of the game when it comes to crime. We don’t need a fancy label on it. We need to figure out how to make it socially unacceptable.”  I agree with her sentiments, but I feel that it’s equally unreasonable to believe that classifying certain acts as “hate crimes” is ineffective.  People who commit hate crimes are focused on what, not who, their victim is.  Their crime is more heinous because the ulterior motive is to cause the most harm possible, as opposed to causing harm as a means to an end.  Yes, the victim is still victimized in both circumstances, but I feel that they should be judged differently.

Jos, a contributor to femisting.com wrote an article entitled Why I don’t support hate crime legislation. She explains her point well:

“It is important to recognize violence motivated by bigotry, and difficult to see alternatives to hate crime convictions as a means to this end. A sense of justice for the family and friends of people who have been killed because of their sexuality or gender identity is also valuable. But the ultimate goal should be to end such violence. Harsher sentencing does not decrease the amount of hate crimes being committed. A focus on sentence enhancement for these crimes does nothing for prevention. Putting our energy toward promoting harsher sentencing takes it away from the more difficult and more important work of changing our culture so that no one wants to kill another person because of their perceived membership in a marginalized identity group.”

It is important to recognize violence motivated by bigotry, and difficult to see alternatives to hate crime convictions as a means to this end. A sense of justice for the family and friends of people who have been killed because of their sexuality or gender identity is also valuable. But the ultimate goal should be to end such violence. Harsher sentencing does not decrease the amount of hate crimes being committed. A focus on sentence enhancement for these crimes does nothing for prevention. Putting our energy toward promoting harsher sentencing takes it away from the more difficult and more important work of changing our culture so that no one wants to kill another person because of their perceived membership in a marginalized identity group.

My sentiments exactly.

My sentiments exactly.

I did find a large amount of support for this legislation.  The editors of The Jewish Week published an online article, Hate Crimes Bill, Long Overdue, in which they try to calm the fears and rumors that have been spreading about how this bill might affect religious organizations:

” The new law would allow greater federal involvement in investigating hate crimes and extend the coverage of existing hate crimes statutes to crimes based on gender, disability and sexual orientation. It’s that last category that has sparked the ire of conservative Christian leaders, who claim — incorrectly and outrageously — that the measure would bar ministers from preaching against homosexuality, essentially criminalizing the act of calling homosexuality a sin.

High Impact Leadership Coalition

High Impact Leadership Coalition

In fact, the bill has nothing to do with speech, only with acts of criminal violence. Additional language to ensure that religious rights are respected has been added to a measure that already was cautiously worded to avoid that problem.

Also contrary to the claims of these groups, this is not a “gay rights” bill despite its name — the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named after the young gay man murdered in Wyoming in 1998.  The new law is necessary because of an inadequate patchwork of state hate crimes laws, which means there are places where crimes against groups that face local biases are treated as less serious offenses.”

Does any of this sound familiar?

Catherine Robinson, of the Hillsborough County Examiner, takes it further.  “The Department of Justice will have the power to go after bias-motivated offenses and give important federal assistance to states, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes.  No worries, haters. Your First Amendment rights to shout, blog or write nasty views will not be threatened. The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 is important. It declares paramount the values of tolerance, acceptance and peace.”

I just wanted to show you, readers, that other groups in the country are working toward the same goals we are, to make our communities safer for all of their residents.  The rhetoric we’ve heard from Jerry Prevo’s group is not new or unique, and they are in the minority around the country.  Take heart in what you’re doing to help this cause.  If you feel beaten down, look to others who share in your struggle, and take strength.  We’re only a click away.

From Floridana Alaskiana's excellent gallery.

From Floridana Alaskiana's excellent gallery.

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