The Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) issued an alert in May urging Episcopalians to send letters to their U.S. Senate representatives in support of the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill which would reform existing hate crimes law.
"It's critical to get support behind this because finally we have a chance to get a hate crimes bill that will include sexual orientation and gender identity," said the Rev. Susan Russell, president of Integrity, an Episcopal grassroots organization that works for full inclusion and access to rites for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people in the church. "This is the time to make it happen. We have energy behind it in the House and Senate and a White House that said it will support and sign it."
On April 29, the House of Representatives passed the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLEHCPA), by a vote of 249-175. The bill gives the Justice Department the power to investigate and prosecute bias-motivated violence in instances where the perpetrator has victimized a person based on his or her actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, in addition to race, color, religion, and national origin which are currently covered.
The 1998 torture and murder of Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, brought international attention to the limitations of U.S. hate crimes statutes at the local, state and federal levels. In 2007, Congress passed bills to reform existing hate crimes law to allow state and local governments more control and accountability over such cases. But the bill, added as an amendment to the Defense Reauthorization Bill, was dropped when former U.S. President George W. Bush said he would veto the defense bill with the rider, a legislative term meaning an additional provision.
"The bill is now moving because of a confluence political serendipity: Stronger Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a president willing to sing it into law," said DeWayne Davis, EPPN domestic policy analyst, in an email message.
Conservatives and some conservative religious groups previously opposed amending the hate crimes law because they felt it would inhibit them from expressing their moral and biblical objections to homosexuality in free speech.
"For political reasons LGBT has become the wedge issue that polarizes and splits the electorate. I am hoping not only to see an end to that with this bill in Washington, but in church politics as well as we more toward our General Convention," Russell said, referring to the Episcopal Church's main legislative body that meets every three years.
In addition to including sexual and gender identity, the legislation also gives the Justice Department greater oversight of state and local criminal investigations where bias is involved, and makes grants available to fund training, prevention campaigns and to assist in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
The FBI reported 7,624 single-bias hate crime offenses in 2007. Of those, 51% were race-based. Ranked second and third were those based on religion (18%) and sexual orientation (17%) in its most recent report on hate crimes.
Russell went to Washington to lobby in support of new hate crimes legislation both in 2007 and earlier this year.
"One of the things I found working the Human Rights Campaign out of Washington was the huge percentage of people who thought sexuality and gender identity were protected," she said.