CAPITOL HILL -- The Senate's leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., is now throwing his full-hearted support behind a hate crimes act that would bring the full attention and resources of the federal government into investigating crimes committed against someone because of their sexual orientation.
Probably the most famous such crime was that committed against Matthew Shepherd, a gay student who was tied to a fence, beaten and left to die outside Laramie, Wyo., back in 1998.
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Now, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is planning to amend the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act onto the Defense Authorization Bill, a clever tactic because that's considered "must pass" legislation needed to fund the military.
To show his support for Sen. Leahy, Majority Leader Reid brought Judy Shepard, Matthew's mother, before the national media at his weekly appearance before reporters outside the Senate chamber.
In introducing her, Reid said, "This mother has suffered a tragedy no parent should have to endure, and in doing so, she's opened our nation's eyes to the brutality of hate crimes and the urgent need for Congress to do something about it."
Mother of Murdered Man Speaks Out
"It's been over 10 years since my son Matthew was murdered in Laramie, Wyo., because he was gay," Shepard told the media. "It's been a long 10 years for us, and we have waited and waited to have a compassionate, understanding and accepting Congress to get this through."
Reid also said of Mrs. Shepard, "She and many others who have suffered taught us that we cannot be afraid to call these crimes what they are: hate crimes," Reid said. "The last decade, Matthew Shepard's name has been associated with hate crimes. When this bill passes, his name will thereafter be associated with justice."
Shepard added, "And this bill will send a great message of respect to the nation that the government understands that hate crimes against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community are on the rise, they are heinous, they are very violent."
Proponents of hate crimes legislation say it's important because there are just as many hate crimes now as in decades past. They claim some 7,500 acts a year, about one an hour.
Few Crimes against Gays Extremely Violent
But opponents say the anti-gay crimes are rarely as violent as, for instance, the 4,700 racist lynchings of past centuries.
Bishop Harry Jackson of the conservative High Impact Leadership Coalition told CBN News, "The Matthew Shepard case itself could be seen as a drug deal gone bad, not just a hate crime. And we find that probably there are under 10 major assaults on (gay) people's person that have happened.
"A lot of what goes on nationally and locally has to do with name-calling, pushing and shoving; nothing that's on the order of murder, maiming and those kinds of things," he added.
Could Anti-gay Speech Become a Hate Crime?
What Jackson is worried about is that hate crimes law may end up targeting pastors and other believers who preach against homosexuality. In other words, what some label "hate speech" against homosexuality will come to be seen as an actual "hate crime."
"I believe the Gospel is going to be attacked among other things, where people who speak out against gayness, speak out against homosexuality, are penalized by overzealous prosecutors," he said.
Jackson believes actual religious persecution may be ahead.
"We're creating an environment where I believe there's going to be a reverse prejudice dynamic, and there's going to be an insensitivity to just the opinions and even the preaching of individuals who happen to disagree with a lifestyle when they're not trying to demean the personhood of an individual," he said. "And that thin line is what makes this very insidious. It's a slippery slope in which I believe many are going to be persecuted."
Most States Already Have Hate Crimes Bills
Opponents of a federal hate crimes bill also argue that basically it's unnecessary. Forty-five states already have their own version of a hate crimes bill and any crime committed against someone like murder is going to be investigated and almost sure to be prosecuted anyway.
Bishop Jackson has another argument for not adding sexual orientation as a new category deserving federal protection: "Laws like this begin to enshrine a certain kind of behavior, gay behavior, with the same kind of protective status that race or gender would have. And we know that race and gender are immutable characteristics. They are not something I choose to do. I've never met a former black person, though I've met many former gay people."
The battle over a federal hate crimes act is likely to come to a head any day now in the U.S. Senate, because backers of it are trying to get it debated and voted on just as soon as possible.
Maybe Too Clever a Strategy?
But the move to guarantee the hate crimes act gets passed by making it an amendment to the defense bill could backfire. Almost $2 billion in that defense bill would go for F-22 fighter jets.
The Obama administration is hotly opposed to funding those jets. It has threatened a presidential veto of the entire bill unless the F-22 fighter funding is stripped out.
If the defense bill were to go down, then so would the hate crimes amendment.