President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard Act into law on Wednesday ending a decade of efforts by LGBT and human rights groups to get sexual orientation and gender identity included in federal hate crime laws.
The bill was named for Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student, who was murdered because of his sexual orientation in 1998.
Shepard’s mother, Judy, said in a statement that she and her husband, Dennis, “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.”
“After more than a decade, we have passed inclusive hate crimes legislation,” said President Obama. “I promised Judy and Dennis Shepard that this day would come and I’m glad they could join us for this event.”
“Prosecutors will have new tools to work with states in order to prosecute to the fullest those who would perpetrate such crimes,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in the East Room of the White House at an evening reception, “Because no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are or because they live with a disability.”
The legislation extends provisions from 1968 that make it a federal crime to target individuals because of their race, religion or national origin. Under the law, judges can impose harsher penalties on crimes that are motivated by such hostility, and the Justice Department can help local police departments investigate alleged hate crimes.
According to the FBI, law enforcement agencies around the country reported 7,624 hate crime incidents in 2007, the most recent year for which data were available. More than half were categorized as racially motivated, and about 17 percent were based on sexual orientation.
LGBT rights groups immediately hailed the signing of the bill.
Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, said,
“I applaud the President and all of Congress for passing this historic bill into law. I also thank Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, for her courageous battle and her work towards passing this Act. Her commitment and passion are a true testament to the love of a parent.” She continued, “This bill will provide the resources and protections needed to ensure greater safety to our children, parents and all members of LGBT families.”
It is amazing to realize that this is the first piece of legislation dealing with LGBT civil rights ever to be signed into law at the federal level. We can only hope it will be the first of many yet to come.