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Hate Crimes Law

The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Public Law No. 111-84

Hate Crimes in America

Every hour, a crime motivated by the perpetrator’s bias against the victim occurs in the United States. These hate crimes terrorize whole communities by making members of certain classes - whether racial minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, religious minorities or people who are perceived to be members of these groups - afraid to live in certain places and be free to move about in their community and across the country.

Because perpetrators commit hate crimes to send a message and express anger or hatred for the victim, they often involve more violent acts than it takes to subdue or incapacitate the victim. Sometimes they involve mutilation, torture or holding the victim captive, such as in a car trunk.

Historical events can cause a spike in hate crimes: After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many people who were Muslim or perceived to be Arabs were targeted. This included Sikh Americans who were murdered because the attackers believed that they were Arabs, though they were not.

Law before the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Since 1968, federal law has covered a narrow class of hate crimes: those committed on the basis of race, religion, national origin and because the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting. This important civil rights law does not cover crimes motivated by bias against the person’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or disability, or those without a nexus to a federally protected activity. That is why the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act is necessary.

The Act

Assisting Local Law Enforcement

The act permits the government to provide grants and assistance to state and local authorities investigating and prosecuting hate crimes. The need for this provision is real, as demonstrated by the Matthew Shepard case.

When Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, the Laramie, Wyo., police department requested assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice. Because crimes motivated by anti-LGBT bias were not covered in federal law, the department could not assist, and the prosecution was so expensive that Laramie had to furlough law enforcement officers. The act ensures that local law enforcement will have the resources it needs to address hate crimes.

Providing Federal Jurisdiction

Where state and local law enforcement cannot or will not investigate and prosecute these crimes, the federal government currently has no authority to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Support for the Act

Polls have consistently demonstrated broad public support for hate crimes legislation. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of Americans favored expanding hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. A 2007 Hart Research poll showed large majorities of every major subgroup of the electorate - including such traditionally conservative groups as Republican men (56 percent) and evangelical Christians (63 percent) - expressed support for strengthening hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, the legislation is endorsed by more than 300 law enforcement, civil rights, civic and religious organizations, including: the International Association of Chiefs of Police, National District Attorneys Association, Presbyterian Church, Episcopal Church, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Young Women’s Christian Association and National Disability Rights Network.

Why Passage of the Act is Historic

Although the LGBT community has made great progress in recent years, until the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, federal law has never protected our community. To the contrary, Congress has acted and attempted to act to incorporate discrimination into federal law. In the 1990s, Congress enacted "Don’t Ask, Don’t, Tell," which codified the military’s ban on service by openly LGBT people. It then passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which excludes same-sex couples from the benefits and protections of federal law and purports to allow states to not recognize marriages of same-sex couples. Starting in 2004 and continuing through 2006, Congress twice attempted to enact the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would bar any state from licensing or recognizing marriages of same-sex couples.

Hate crimes legislation and other pro-LGBT bills also faced opposition, whether due to hostile leadership in Congress or presidential veto threats. Now, Congress has passed legislation that affirms a basic human right for LGBT people - the right to be safe from hate violence.

What it Took

  • Over 600,000 YouTube views of our hate crimes advocacy videos;
  • More than 1 million emails/faxes and phone calls sent to Capitol Hill since 2002 in support of hate crimes legislation;
  • More than 300 organizations (civil rights, religious, law enforcement, etc) who signed on in support of the Matthew Shepard Act;
  • 86,582 total hate crimes reported since the introduction of the first hate crimes bill on November 13, 1997. Of that reported number, 13,528 of those hate crimes have been based on sexual orientation.
  • 14 floor votes in the House and the Senate over twelve years to finally get the bill to the President's desk;
  • At least 26 states whose Attorneys General have supported the hate crimes bill since its' introduction;
  • 1 President who was an early supporter of hate crimes legislation; 1 who did all he could to stop a hate crimes law for the LGBT community and 1 who signed it into law;