A bill known as the Matthew Shepard Act has been approved for a Senate vote.
The bill, named after the murdered gay teenager, expands federal hate crime laws to include crimes where the victims were targeted on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, and disability.
It also means the federal government could step in to prosecute in states that request it or in those who choose not to prosecute. was passed 63-28 last Thursday night.
Senators voted 63-28 last Thursday to end discussion on the ‘Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act’, and to put it forward to a vote in the Senate.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said: “The Senate made a strong statement this evening that hate crimes have no place in America. This is a victory for all Americans – particularly those like Judy Shepard, who has endured what no mother should ever have to.”
The bill is named after Matthew Shepard, the teenager who was tortured and murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, for being gay, and whose murder in 1998 became a focal point for a call for hate crime legislation to be passed.
It is to be attached to the Department of Defence reauthorisation bill, an unpopular bill calling for funding into the billions to be provided for new F-22 fighter jets.
The defence bill faces staunch opponents in President Barack Obama and defence secretary Robert Gates. A spokesman for the White House said the president will not sign it.
In reference to the recent turn of events, White House spokesman Shin Inouye said: “The president has long supported the hate crimes bill and gave his personal commitment to Judy Shepard that we will enact an inclusive bill.”
Inouye continued: “Unfortunately, the president will have to veto the Defence authorisation bill if it includes wasteful spending for additional F-22.”
Obama’s military chiefs have said that the current defence programme is sufficient and Inouye added: “A presidential veto would not indicate any change in President Obama’s commitment to seeing the hate-crimes bill enacted.”
Some senators, such as former presidential candidate John McCain, have spoken out against this move and against the Hate Crimes Act.
On Wednesday, McCain said in the discussion at Capitol Hill: “Those of us who oppose this legislation – and it is important legislation – will be faced with a dilemma of choosing between a bill which can harm, in my view, the United States of America and its judicial system and a bill defending the nation.”
With the exception of McCain, Republican senators have remained silent, even though many oppose the legislation.
Senator Barbara Boxer, for California, spoke out against McCain’s comments during the discussion, saying: “If all that Matthew Shepard had to deal with were taunts about his sexuality, his sexual preference, that would be one thing. He had to deal with murderers who tortured him.”
However, David Smith, vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, has indicated that he believes the Matthew Shepard bill still stands a good chance of becoming law, despite the F-22 snag.
“We are very confident that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act is going to get to the president’s desk,” Smith said. “There might be some bumps along the way, but it will eventually get there.”
The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act would broaden the US federal law already in place to protect citizens against crimes based on their race, color, national origin or religion.
The bill would expand this list to include crimes such as actual or perceived gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.
It would also allow the federal government to provide help and assistance to local law authorities investigating hate crimes and to step in where local authorities are unable or unwilling to prosecute a hate crime.
The bill has also come under the attention of an ex-gay group.
A spokesman for ex-gay group PFOX (Parents & Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays) spoke out against the bill and for Senate leader Reid’s support for it.
Greg Quinlan, who claims he used to be gay, said in a statement that he believes the bill is being passed “on a phony premise”.
He said: “Matthew Shepard was not murdered because of his homosexual orientation, he was murdered because of a drug deal gone bad – and we need to stop the hyperbole. We need to stop lying to the American people and start telling the truth.”