"The Episcopal Church has long been an advocate of combating hate in our society. No person or group of people should be the target of violence simply because of race, gender, religion, disability, national origin, sexuality or perceived sexual orientation."
--Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's 2007 Letter to the U.S. Senate
Passage of hate crimes legislation is long overdue. In 1998, the bias-motivated murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, brought international attention to the limitations of U.S. hate crimes statutes at the local, state, and federal levels. In the years since the death of Matthew Shepard, Congress has passed bills to reform existing hate crimes law to allow state and local governments more control and accountability over such cases, but none have ever reached the President's desk.
On April 29, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1913, 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 where the perpetrator has selected the victim because of the person's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability, in addition to race, color, religion, national origin, which are currently covered.
The LLEHCPA also provides important new assistance for investigating and prosecuting these cases. It gives the Justice Department the ability to aid state and local jurisdictions either by lending assistance or, where local authorities are unwilling or unable, by taking the lead in investigations and prosecutions of violent crime resulting in death or serious bodily injury that were motivated by bias. The LLEHCPA also makes grants available to state and local communities to combat violent crimes committed by juveniles, train law enforcement officers, or to assist in state and local investigations and prosecutions of bias motivated crimes.
In its most recent report on 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%).
At a time when hate crimes are all too prevalent, political leaders must stand with people of faith to make it clear that neither hate nor violence is an American value. Though legislation cannot remove hate from the hearts and minds of individuals, hate crime legislation can help to create a society that is unbending in its intolerance of hate-motivated violence. Everyone in this society should enjoy the strongest possible guarantee of freedom from attacks motivated by bigotry. If we aspire to be true to the prophetic core of our faith, we cannot condemn hate and then sit idly by while it destroys our communities. In keeping with our Baptismal Covenant pledge to "respect the dignity of every human being," we must work with the government to create a society in which diverse people are safe as well as free.
This bill has a chance to reach the President's desk now more than anytime before. The Senate could take action at any time on the Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (S. 909), sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) with 39 co-sponsors. Help send the Matthew Shepard bill to the President's desk – contact your Senator today!