Obama signs hate-crimes law rooted in crimes of 1998
By David Jackson,USA TODAY ….. Updated 2009-10-284:55 PM
The year 1998 was dominated by the saga of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, but it also saw two horrific killings that led to a new federal law signed by President Obama.
On June 7, inTexas, three white men chained an African American named James Byrd to a pickup truck and dragged him to his death; in the early hours of Oct. 7, two men inWyomingbeat up gay teenager Matthew Shepard and left him to die while tied to a fence.
These killings intensified pressure for tougher federal hate-crimes legislation. Today, Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“After more than a decade of opposition and delay, we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray or who they are,” Obama said in signing the defense budget bill that includes the new hate-crimes law.
The new law basically expands existing hate-crime protections to outlaw attacks based on sexual orientation or gender, in addition to race, color, religion or national origin. In a later ceremony devoted to the new law, Obama told supporters, “No one inAmericashould ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hand of the person they love.” He cited statistics that in these past 10 years, there have been more than 12,000 hate crimes based on sexual orientation.
“We will never know how many incidents were never reported at all,” Obama said.
Opponents called the hate-crimes bill unnecessary, noting that Shepard’s and Byrd’s attackers were convicted in state criminal courts. Some critics objected to the inclusion of hate-crimes legislation in a defense budget bill. “The president has used his position as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda, when he should have used it to advance legislation that would unequivocally support our troops,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference. Pence also argued that the law could be used to curb free speech rights, such as with religions that consider homosexuality a sin. Gay rights groups hailed the law.
“President Obama and Congress have sent a message that violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is wrong and that our community should not be excluded from the protections of our nation’s laws,” said Jarrett Barrios, president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
In signing the bill, Obama paid tribute to one of its sponsors, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. He also singled out another longtime advocate: Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother, who personally lobbied the president earlier this year. “I promised Judy Shepard, when she saw me in the Oval Office, that this day would come, and I’m glad that she and her husband, Dennis, could join us for this event,” Obama said.
In a statement, Mrs. Shepard — who was at the White House again — said she never dreamed it would take 10 years for the new law to become a reality. “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,” Shepard said.