The New York Times reported early this week that Senate Democrats announced that they had attached the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act to the annual defense authorization bill. The Matthew Shepard Act broadens federal hate crimes law to protect the victims of attacks that are based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disabilities.
The Senate approved inclusive hate crimes legislation last year (also attached to defense bill), but it was not reconciled with a similar House passed bill. According to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who is spearheading the bill, the Matthew Shepard Act has been pending in the Senate for more than a decade. At the request of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and the Republican Members of the Judiciary Committee, Leahy held hearings on the Shepard Act last month.
The House passed a similar hate crimes bill, H.S. 1913, in April with a vote of 249 to 175. The Senate’s bill is likely to be passed but faces a veto from President Obama. The President supports the Matthew Shepard Act, but has been urging the Senate to remove provisions to purchase seven additional F-22 fighter jets from the defense bill.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) spoke out in favor of the Hate Crimes Bill. He was joined by Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, who said that anti-LGBT hate crimes are on the rise and passing the bill would show “a great message of respect” to victims of these crimes.
The anti-gay Family Research Council has released a video in which Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) & Sen. Jim Demint (R-SC) denounced hate crimes protections, making the false (and often repeated) claim that the Matthew Shepard Act would impede religious liberties.
The Associated Press reports that U.S. Senators took to the floor to debate the issue on Wednesday, which is said to have its best chances in years because of the current political climate. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Harry Reid got into a brief argument on the Senate floor when McCain said that adding this amendment to the defense bill is an “abuse of power” and called it “extraneous”. Reid asked McCain “where has he been in the past” when the Matthew Shepard Act was attached to the same bill with a Republican President in power.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) confronted questions from Senators who reiterated the anti-gay notions of Tony Perkins and Pat Robertson, who say that this bill will somehow stamp on religious liberties. He said that the bill "does not criminalize speech or hateful thoughts. It seeks only to punish violent action that undermines the core values of our nation."
Senators could vote on this legislation as early as next week. Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Center for Transgender Equality are urging people to contact their Senators to tell them to pass this important hate crimes bill.
GLAAD will continue to monitor media coverage of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act.