Today, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The legislation will extend important 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.
"We've struggled for many years to enact this legislation, but I am deeply grateful to see these protections become federal law," said Reverend Timothy McDonald, People For the American Way board member and chairman of the African American Ministers In Action. "This bill exemplifies our deepest American values, it ensures strong action against senseless violence against people targeted simply because of who they are, and furthermore it will protect the religious freedom of all clergy to speak out on any issue they feel passionately about. It is shameful that opponents of this bill and the Religious Right have waged a dishonest and unfair campaign against it, and I am thankful to all those who stood up to defend those most in need."
Right wing opponents of the bill have repeatedly attacked the legislation, falsely claiming that the legislation would impinge on First Amendment rights. In fact, the bill contains important provisions to ensure that clergy members can preach about any issue-including homosexuality-without fear of government censure.
"This is a major step towards ensuring equality under the law for all people," said Michael B. Keegan, President of People For the American Way. "It's been more than a decade since Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. were murdered, but at long last the legislation bearing their names has become a law. I hope that Congress will move quickly to follow this bill with legislation ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, repealing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, and finally enacting the long overdue Employment Non Discrimination Act."
The Hate Crimes legislation, which was attached to the Department of Defense authorization bill, includes protections based on gender identity-the first time gender identity will receive positive protection in federal law.
"As we commemorate the signing of this bill, it is appropriate that we remember the unflagging leadership of Senator Kennedy," said Keegan. "Without his tireless and passionate work in support of this measure, this day would not be possible. This legislation is yet one more piece of his enduring legacy of making our core Constitutional values real for all Americans."