President Barack Obama signed hate crime legislation -- that for the first time includes gender and sexual orientation provisions -- into law Oct. 28 during a ceremony at the White House attended by Diocese of Wyoming Bishop Bruce Caldwell.
"To all the activists, all the organizers, all the people who helped make this day happen, thank you for your years of advocacy and activism, pushing and protesting that made this victory possible," said Obama during the ceremony. "You know, as a nation we've come far on the journey towards a more perfect union. And today, we've taken another step forward. This afternoon, I signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act."
The act, part of a defense spending 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.
"I think God was smiling and moving with every stroke of the pen as Obama signed this legislation," Caldwell said. "I think passage of this legislation gives the country the opportunity to press the pause button to say enough is enough. No more violence."
Not long after Caldwell became bishop he was asked to preside at Shepard's funeral. Shepard had served as an acolyte in the Wyoming diocese and was a member of the University of Wyoming Canterbury Club, a Christian university group, at the time of his torture and murder in 1998.
Shepard's murder 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 if it included the amendment.
James Byrd, Jr., an African American, was brutally murdered in Jasper, Texas, in 1998, in what was termed a "lynching," by three white men, two of whom received the death penalty and the third was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
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.